Lake Elmo shuts down contaminated well and water tower

submitted photo • Lake Elmo took a well and a water tower offline March 28 following a recommendation from the Minnesota Department of Health, which discovered a perflurochemical concentration above its health-based advisory level. The affected well primarily served the Old Village area, providing water to properties south of the railroad tracks, along Lake Elmo Avenue South to Fifth Street. Properties in this area now are receiving clean water from two of the city’s other wells.

Lake Elmo shut down a city well and water tower March 28 due to contamination from perflurochemicals, often referred to as PFCs, which are man-made chemicals developed by 3M Company.

PFCs have been used for decades to make products that resist heat, water, oil, grease and stains, such as carpets, clothing, fabrics, furniture, cookware and paper packaging for food, and have other industrial uses. The chemicals may also present a number of health risks to people if large amounts are consumed.

According to City Administrator Kristina Handt, the city was notified by the Minnesota Department of Health March 26 that data from the last year of monitoring on one of the city’s wells averaged a PFC concentration over the department’s health-based advisory level.

According to a March 27 public notice, when the city shut down the well and water tower, it compensated for the loss by increasing the pressure from two of the city’s other wells. 

“This process will help to ensure that there will be no loss of water, and emergency services will not be impacted,” the notice said.

A March 28 press release from the city noted that this changeover had the potential to stir up rust and sediment in the water distribution system causing some residents to experience brown water in their homes. Residents with brown water need only run their faucets for about 10 minutes to flush their home water systems. 

Residents should also expect slightly increased water pressure in their homes.


Monitoring Well One

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the presence of PFCs in some Lake Elmo ground water is related to a historic landfill that previously accepted chemicals from 3M. According to MDH, PFCs do not break down in the environment.

James Kelly, manager of the environmental surveillance and assessment section at MDH, explained that Lake Elmo’s Well One has been monitored since the early 2000s, but the presence of PFCs in its water didn’t show up until late 2012.

“Even then it was just at barely detectable levels, you know, well below our values,” Kelly said.

The department of health raised its advisory standard for two types of PFCs in May 2017, and at that time Well Number One tested slightly above that standard for one type of PFC, perfluorooctanoic acid, Kelly said. 

“We don’t want to overreact to one sample because we know that it will go up and down, so we initiated quarterly monitoring, and we tend to follow it over a period of time to see what happens,” he said.

Kelly explained that fluctuations in the concentration of any groundwater contaminant is natural, saying that, for example, melting snow and ice in the spring can be a cause of fluctuations.

“[PFCs are in the water at] 20 to 40 parts per trillion, which is a very, very tiny amount, so it doesn’t take much fluctuation to put them above or even below our values,” he said.

Kelly said three of the Well One samples over the last year were just above the health-based value threshold and one was below it, but because the average of the four tests was still above the standard, MDH recommended the city “cut back on the use of that well.”

The most recent test was completed in late February, and results from that test were available only just before the department of health notified the city, Kelly said.

The affected well is located downtown, and Handt explained that due to the well’s location, not everybody in the city is affected.

Well One primarily served the Old Village area, providing water to properties south of the railroad tracks, along Lake Elmo Avenue South to Fifth Street.


Health concerns

According to the EPA, risks associated with high exposure to PFCs include low birth weights for babies, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations, some cancers, liver damage, interference with the immune system, thyroid issues and cholesterol changes.

Despite raising its advisory standards in 2017 for two types of PFCs, the MDH released a statement Feb. 7 stating that in relation to PFC exposure in the east metro, it “did not find unusual rates of adverse birth outcomes or certain cancers.”

“I also want to stress that our health-based values are based on a lifetime of exposure,” Kelly said. “What we’re trying to do is to make sure those levels don’t continue over a long, long period of time where they can build up in the body.”

A city press release stated that Well One has only exceeded the most recent health-based values since 2013.

Kelly added that in a short span of time, residents should not expect to see any problems, especially because the levels of PFCs in the water “only slightly exceeded” the department’s health-based values.

“I don’t think it’s an emergency,” Handt added.

For more information about health concerns, contact the Minnesota Department of Health Site Assessment and Consultation Unit at 651-201-4897 or


Lake Elmo’s other wells

With Well One now offline, half of Lake Elmo’s four wells are unused because of PFC contamination. 

Handt explained that Well Three, the other affected well, was drilled in the early 2000s near Eagle Point Business Park, but because contamination was discovered, the well was never used.

She said that after contamination was discovered in Well Three, Lake Elmo took on all costs associated with drilling two additional wells in the northern part of the city, away from contaminated groundwater. She added that Lake Elmo is still actively pursuing reimbursement for these expenses through a lawsuit against 3M

“Thankfully, the city was proactive in putting in those additional wells in the northern part of the city,” she said.

Now, Well Two and Well Four, which are located in uncontaminated areas, supply all of Lake Elmo’s municipal water. Because they are located in the northern part of the city, water can flow down to other areas, but contamination won’t flow up to those wells.

Kelly explained that both wells are tested, but because there is no contamination, there is no need to test them as frequently as Well One had been tested.

Although the city received numerous concerns from residents on social media about potential risks for private wells, Kelly explained that the contamination plume has not changed, so the wells that need to be monitored carefully are already being monitored. There is nothing different residents need to do, he said. 

Kelly explained that cities have redundant systems to help them react to situations like this one, adding “I would like to commend the city for being proactive and taking a step quickly to switch to different wells.”

The Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will be holding a public meeting Thursday, April 12, to provide updates on the 3M settlement and answer questions about drinking water in Lake Elmo. The meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at Oakland Middle School, 820 Manning Ave. N.


Looking ahead at Lake Elmo’s water needs

After receiving the Minnesota Department of Health’s recommendation to stop using one of Lake Elmo’s municipal wells, City Administrator Kristina Handt said city staff were focused on the immediate task of decommissioning the well and hadn’t yet had time to evaluate possible long-term solutions. 

She said that with Well One offline, the city has a year or two before its expected growth will demand it make up for the loss of the well, either by drilling a new well or adding a water treatment system to an existing well.

Handt explained that city staff will continue to monitor the capacity of the two uncontaminated wells, and if needed, the city can look at emergency declarations related to irrigation and car washing.

She added that city staffers are “fairly confident” any future costs incurred while coping with perflurochemical contamination will be reimbursed to the city. 

The money would likely come from the $850 million settlement 3M Company is paying Minnesota over PFC-contaminated groundwater. Although the settlement ended the lawsuit Feb. 20, 3M admitted no wrongdoing. 

The settlement money is slated to fund water sustainability in the east metro, such as continued delivery of water to residents and enhancing groundwater recharge to support sustainable growth. Other work funded by the settlement will include habitat and recreation improvements, such as fishing piers, trails and open space preservation.

However, a potential snag Lake Elmo faces in making up for the loss of the well is related to another lawsuit.

Lake Elmo’s two uncontaminated wells are located in the northern part of the city, within a five mile radius of White Bear Lake, an area under scrutiny after a judge ruled in October 2017 in favor of the White Bear Lake Restoration Association in its case against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources over water levels in White Bear Lake. 

As a result of that ruling, the DNR has sent amended water appropriation permits to cities with wells located within a five mile radius of the lake. These permits, which tell cities how much water they are allowed to draw from the aquifer, now include stipulations including putting into effect a residential irrigation ban when the water in White Bear Lake is less than 923.5 feet, among other things.

The watering ban would be in effect almost immediately due to the current lake water level being just under 923 feet.

Handt said that if the Lake Elmo City Council hadn’t decided March 20 to appeal the permit, the stipulations would have “absolutely” made it more difficult for the city to compensate for the water previously drawn from the contaminated well.

“We hope that the state will pass legislation, so those [conditions on our permit] don’t go into effect,” she said, adding, “If not, we’ll certainly be working with the DNR in figuring out how we can prioritize getting people clean water, given all this.”


– Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or


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