A new tool by the Environmental Working Group is allowing Minnesotans to see what’s in their tap water.
The national environmental activist group recently released 2021 update to the EWG Tap Water Database, a collection of over 31 million state water records on contaminants all across the country. The group called the database a “one-of-a-kind comprehensive consumer tool,” allowing easy access to contaminant levels in their state and city. Consumers can simply plug in their zip code or state and find water quality data for their municipality. The reported numbers reflect annual average contaminant levels between 2017-2019.
“EWG’s Tap Water Database offers a panoramic view of what drinking water quality looks like when the federal office meant to protect our water is in an advanced stage of regulatory capture,” said EWG President Ken Cook.
Water contaminants are measured at very low levels, in parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb) and can originate from a variety of sources. They may occur naturally in soil and rock or originate from or be accelerated by human sources such as agricultural and industrial activities.
But even small amounts they can be hazardous to one’s health. For example, arsenic is a frequent contaminant in drinking water, dissolving from soil and rock into groundwater. It’s also used as an ingredient in some pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency has set a legal limit of 10 ppb of arsenic in drinking water, but consuming water with arsenic below the EPA standard over many years can still increase the risk of cancer.
Water quality data provided to EWG by the Minnesota Department of Health and the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History database (ECHO) showed the cities of Faribault and Northfield were in compliance with EPA regulations.
But members of EWG said that just because tap water meets EPA regulations, doesn’t mean it’s safe. The group said federal standards have fallen behind new research and pointed out that no new contaminants have been added to the EPA’s regulated list since 2000.
“There is a gap between what is legal and what is safe and that’s what we really want people to understand,” said EWG science analyst Sydney Evans. “You have these maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) that are so far out of date now that I think if you started the process from scratch the MCL would be much lower for many of these contaminants.”
EWG includes its own guidelines for contaminants in the Tap Water Database and provides national and state averages for comparison. The group’s recommendations are sourced from a variety of health agencies, many are taken from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
In Faribault, three contaminants exceeded EWG’s guidelines. Haloacetic acids and total trihalomethanes — both the result of a reaction between chlorine used to disinfect tap water and organic materials — were detected at 0.146 ppb and 0.659 ppb, above EWG guidelines and far below state and national averages.
But EWG reported that a significant amount of radium was reported in Faribault’s municipal tap water. At 4.9 pCi/L (picocuries per liter), the amount of radioactive decay was near the EPA’s legal limit of 5 pCi/L. The EPA’s legal limit is set to protect consumers from risk of bone and other forms of cancer.
In Northfield, 10 contaminants exceeded EWG’s recommendations, including seven created when water is chlorinated, along with nitrate and radium. Most fall below state and national averages, with the exception of 0.61 pCi/L of radium rising above the national average of 0.46 pCi/L and 0.637 ppm of nitrate exceeding the state average of 0.455 ppm.
Paul Jackson, an associate professor of chemistry and environmental studies at St. Olaf College isn’t going to stop using his kitchen sink any time soon. While Jackson said EPA regulations likely need updating, MDH has been fairly active in setting goals for clean water standards, though these goals are non-binding.
For example, the EPA’s maximum contaminant level for chloroform is 80 ppb, but Minnesota’s guidelines are stricter at 20 ppb. The 1.18 ppb of chloroform reported in Northfield tap water is three times EWG’s recommendation 0.4 ppb, but well below the guidelines set by the state and federal government.
Jackson added that there are a number of factors that impact the chemical profile of contaminants. A contaminant sourced from reservoirs and carried by rivers, lakes and snow melts is different from a contaminant leeched into groundwater. For cities like Northfield that pull their water from wells, the primary concern is contaminants from rock, soil, fertilizer and nearby industry. Cities reliant on surface water have to monitor wastewater treatment, agricultural runoff and urban runoff upstream.
“Emerging contaminants are things classified as being pushed through our wastewater treatment systems,” said Jackson. “So if you are a municipality that is pulling water from a river and you have other communities living upstream from you, anything that wasn’t pulled out of their water treatment processing is now in the river and so it becomes part of your source. ”
A contaminant that is produced by industrial activity, agriculture or wastewater treatment also presents different challenges than a contaminant that is naturally occurring in the environment.
“While I would love to applaud the Environmental Working Group for this, they don’t distinguish between natural production and other kinds of production,” said Jackson. “That’s one of the limitations I think in their communication and why there’s a particular slant from them.”
Jackson did raise concerns over the city’s vulnerability to nitrate contamination. Because of Northfield’s topography of bedrock limestone, fractures open up the potential for nitrate from fertilizers to bleed into the water supply.
Increasing nitrate levels are a challenge for rural areas across the state of Minnesota. A 2020 analysis of state data by EWG found elevated levels of nitrate in the tap water supplies of 115 Minnesota community water systems. Between 1995 and 2018, nitrate concentrations rose in 72 of those communities.
Across all public groundwater sources, 727 were contaminated with elevated levels of nitrate between 2009 and 2018, serving as many as an estimated 472,000 people. A total 124 systems tested at or above the legal limit of 10 ppb during that time frame, including one source in Rice County, one in Le Sueur County and two in Nicollet County. Over 3,300 private wells also tested at or above the legal limit including wells in Northfield, Bridgewater, Morristown, and Erin and Cannon City townships.
The legal limit for nitrate is based on a 1962 U.S. Public Health Service recommendation intended to prevent “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially fatal condition that starves infants of oxygen. According to EWG scientists, nitrate is associated with higher risks of cancer and birth defects at five milligrams per liter — half the federal limit — or even less.
But Jackson said that the city’s engineers have been proactive in tackling nitrate issues and he wasn’t too concerned with the amounts of other contaminants.
“As an environmental scientist, I don’t have a lot of concern for Northfield’s portfolio,” said Jackson. “I think we’re surveilling the things that are critical, particularly the nitrate piece. A lot of the other chemicals they have are super, super low value. A lot of the things they’re putting forward are going to naturally occur because rocks are made of chemical minerals.”
Many contaminants can be filtered at home through countertop filters or more substantial treatment systems like reverse osmosis or carbon filtration, but the working group’s Evans stressed that isn’t an economical option for many people.
Evans advised communities look for the source of contamination, especially upstream sources of agricultural and urban runoff. But she also said more funding was needed for municipalities to improve their treatment infrastructure.
“Treatment at the utility and managing those bet practices would be ideal, but of course that requires resources and investment,” said Evans. “This is why EWG is so supportive of the infrastructure investment going on … There are a lot of utility and treatment plants that are struggling just to even meet the regulations as they are and that’s not right.”
The seven-period day at Faribault High School continues to benefit students, as staff have more time to appeal to students’ interests — career and otherwise.
An internship opportunity with River Bend Nature Center puts students in the drivers seat, and gives them the opportunity for hands on learning experiences.
Seniors in the River Bend Nature Center internship class this year at FHS presented their findings from helping conduct a special deer hunt at River Bend’s Lunch and Learn Wednesday afternoon. Attendees are able to enjoy their lunch while learning about an environmental topic each month.
FHS biology teacher Peter Jacobson introduced the class to attendees before students began their presentations. Students participating in the class are Jadin Cook, Courtney Lewis, George Caron, Cayden Schultz, Carson Reuvers, Aiden Anderson, JoHahanna Gehrke and Elizabeth Jacobsen.
Along with the special deer hunt, students this fall have learned about wilderness first aid, hazardous plants/animals, land navigation skills like GPS, compasses, maps and orienteering challenge, conducted a pollinator study with Claire LaCanne with University of Minnesota Extension, trail camera use how to, pre-hunt, post-hunt and with the scavenger study.
RBNC Naturalist/Naturalist Resources Manager Brittany Smith said the archery-only deer management hunt takes place every other year, and this year’s was even more important than ever due to chronic wasting disease detected in surrounding counties, to make sure they have their samples. Smith told attendees of Wednesday’s Lunch and Learn that the hunts are conducted in order to keep the deer population at a level that maintains the overall health of River Bend’s ecosystem.
Each pair of students were tasked with a different part of the hunt and presented their findings to those in attendance. Students Carson Reuvers and Aiden Anderson collected data from the deer and hunters about where they shot the deer. The lymph nodes of the deer were used to test for CWD and the jaw was extracted to determine the age. Reuvers said he was surprised with the size of some lymph nodes, while Anderson was caught off guard with the weight of some of the deer.
Classmates George Caron and Cayden Schultz explained how many deer were shot, and some of the statistics they found with weight and age. Eighteen total deer were killed, the average weight was 99 pounds.
Trail cameras were installed before and after the hunt, to watch the behavior and track the number of deer seen, along with cameras post hunt to compare the footage.
Jadin Cook and Courtney Lewis explained after the hunt they noticed more bucks, something they suspect has to do with fewer does. Hunters had the opportunity to shoot both a doe and buck, but they were instructed to shoot a doe first. Of the 35 hunters that registered, 15 deer were shot. Cook and Lewis also looked at when the deer were most active, the things they would eat and how many travel with one another.
Two deer were left unclaimed, giving the class a great opportunity to conduct a scavenger study. Students set up trail cameras at various locations in the woods, focusing on two gut piles and the two spots the unclaimed deer were found.
For some students, like Reuvers and Gehrke, the scavenger study has been a highlight of the class, as they had the opportunity to see the diverse range of wildlife in River Bend.
Anderson, who remembers coming to River Bend in kindergarten, was amazed to see just how diverse the nature center is, especially since during the day there isn’t much activity as they were able to see at night on the trail cameras.
Many classmates agree that their favorite part of the class as a whole was getting to be outside and learn about the things that surround them.
The class is led by the team of Jacobson and Smith, and takes place at River Bend every Monday-Thursday. Some things the class will look at over the winter months includes how the nature center operates, what it takes to set up a nonprofit organization and what the care/maintenance of the facility itself looks like. Jacobson is hopeful students will be able to apply for grants to fund some of their own research studies they will conduct for one quarter next spring.
“It’s been a great opportunity to get kids outside, asking questions and being lifetime learners in the natural world,” said Jacobson.
He’s been enjoying the process of learning new things together, while he learns with students. Smith adds the senior students are at a very critical point in their life when they decide what they want to do after they graduate. As part of the future of this planet, Smith says they have the opportunity to take skills learned from the mentorship, even if it means coming back as a volunteer, naturalist or having a conversationalist mindset.
When the Faribault City Council approves the city’s 2022 property tax levy next month, it’s expected to slice off about a third of the projected 5.83% increase it authorized in September.
A lot of that, City Administrator Tim Murray said during a Tuesday work session, is attributable to a surprising drop in employee insurance costs.
That’s good news for Faribault property owners. According to figures presented by city Finance Director Jeanne Day, the owner of a $175,500 residential property will pay nearly $16 less in city taxes next year. That will be offset, however, by increases in water and storm water fees, making the estimated impact on that median priced home at about $24.38 in 2022.
The owner of a $300,000 residence will pay nearly $30 less in city taxes while the owner of a $1 million commercial property will be assessed nearly $200 less than for this year, according to Day.
The county is proposing no additional personnel in 2022, though it will need to hire a new police chief. Andy Bohlen, a nine-year veteran of the force, retires Dec. 31.
Contracts with labor unions and pay increases for non-union employees will increase costs to the city. The city has budgeted overtime for its police in 2022 ($5,383), and the Community Development Department plans to spend $7,536 on an intern in 2022.
Parks & Recreation Director Paul Peanasky, like other employers across the nation, is losing good employees to higher-paying jobs, and requested a $2 per hour pay increase for seasonal Parks & Rec workers. That request will tack on about $100,000 onto next year’s spending plan.
In all, the city expects to spend an additional $410,500 on wages and benefits in the coming year.
If approved, that will put the levy at $10.6 million, up slightly from nearly $10.2 million in 2021, and mark the fifth consecutive year the city’s tax rate has dropped. In 2018, the tax rates was about 57.5. If Day’s proposal is accepted, the city’s 2022 tax rate will be 51.525. Much of the drop, which coincides with increases in the levy and budget, is due to large industrial projects like the new 1 million square foot Faribault Foods plant and the second Daikin plant just off the interstate near County Road 9 being added to the tax rolls.
Along with increased water rates, the cost to hook up to the city’s water system is going up. Both hikes will help pay for $13 million in improvements to the city’s water treatment plant.
A public hearing in which taxpayers can bring questions and concerns about the proposed 2022 tax levy and budget to the council is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14 in council chambers in Faribault City Hall.