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PFAS found in well water off West Shagawa Road

Ely Echo - Staff Photo - Create Article

by Parker Loew

At least nine homeowners on West Shagawa Road were advised that cancer-causing chemicals known as PFAS were found in their water supply.

The residents have been advised by the MDH (Minnesota Department of Health) to avoid drinking or cooking with their contaminated well water for their safety.

MPCA has also provided these residents with bottled water until arrangements for an alternative source of drinking water are made.

The contamination was only detected in a few wells off West Shagawa Road, but this may be due to a lack of testing for the contaminants.

“We have sampled 11 wells so far, and of those wells, nine tested for elevated levels of PFAS,” said Sondra Campbell, project manager for the MPCA.

PFAS are a group of manufactured chemicals often used in industrial applications and consumer products since the early 1940s.

They break down slowly and can build up in people, animals and the environment over time.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, health risks from elevated intake of PFAS include but are not limited to decreased fertility, increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, behavioral changes, increased risk of prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers and reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections.

Contaminated well water is not a new issue for people living off West Shagawa Road.

In the late 90s, a dry cleaner who lived on West Shagawa Road dumped his industrial dry-cleaning chemicals into the soil.

Historical information obtained by the MPCA from former property owners at 1936 West Shagawa Rd indicated that the owners had found a dump area containing plastic barrels labeled “perchloroethylene” after they had purchased the property in 1997.

Many of the barrels reportedly contained a dark tarry residue and had a strong odor.

The barrels were removed by the property owners and the area was filled before MPCA investigations.

The barrels were reportedly left there by the previous property owners, who operated a dry cleaner in downtown Ely.

The incident in the late 90s was originally reported because one of the residents’ birds lost their feathers after drinking the well water.

“We had a parrot. Its feathers turned gray and started falling out,” said Barb Berglund, a resident of West Shagawa Road.

Berglund said how one of her neighbors, the dry cleaner, buried all their dry-cleaning fluid in their garden across the road, which was the underlying cause of the water contamination in the late 90s.

For this reason, many living off West Shagawa Road including Berglund, have been avoiding their well water since the incident and drinking only bottled water.

“We have been drinking bottled water since. Some of our neighbors drink right from the tap though,” said Darwin Olson, a resident of West Shagawa Road.

Most of the residents of West Shagawa Road are of an older demographic and said how it was a pain to only be able to drink and cook with bottled water for decades.

“I’m an old woman calling around five-gallon jugs of water. It isn’t fun,” said Berglund.

Unfortunately for the residents living on West Shagawa Road, they will likely be dealing with contaminated groundwater for years to come, as PFAS cannot be remediated out of the soil, according to Campbell from the MPCA.

“The possibility of remediating these deep bedrock wells PFAS and VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) is pretty infeasible,” said Campbell. “What we’re going to be doing is treating all the wells that are impacted.”

In the future, the MPCA might look at possible remediation technologies to get the area to an acceptable level of PFAS and VOCs, but with these wells being 200 feet deep, the technology doesn’t yet exist to do so feasibly.

“I was told they ran out of money,” said owner of Shagawa Inn Resort, Jim Bettcher. “They were doing it last year (testing the wells), and they ran out of money. I don’t know how the government runs out of money, but they ran out of money. They must have more money now.”

Bettcher had to drill an expensive new well four years ago because his old well tested for contaminants.

“We put a 75-foot casing around the new well, so there’s no chance of groundwater getting into that one,” said Bettcher.

The MPCA plans on testing all the residential wells off West Shagawa Road shortly, and Campbell is working with the state contractor, Bay West, to request access to the remaining wells.

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