MINNEAPOLIS - In February, Washington County cities rejoiced when $850 million was granted to help them clean up their water.
But no money will be flowing soon. State agencies have released a timetable showing that it will be 2020 - at the earliest - before any water-cleaning projects are even started.
That's making some city officials impatient. "We can't wait years. We do not have that luxury," said Lake Elmo administrator Kristina Handt.
Officials of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency unveiled the timetable at meetings of two advisory groups. According to the schedule, the agency won't be recommending projects and starting construction until 2020. After that, the projects, likely including water treatment plants and wells, will take months or years to complete.
"We do not want to rush in and build something," said PCA assistant commissioner Kirk Koudelka. "We want to get this right."
The 3M Co. paid $850 million to settle a lawsuit claiming damage to the environment from perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, that the company legally put into dump sites ending in the 1970s. The Minnesota attorney general's office sued the company, seeking damages of $5 billion, because traces of the chemicals were found in river water, fish and residents of Washington County.
After the settlement was paid, two groups were set up to find ways to spend it - the Citizen and Business Group, and the 3M and Government Group. They are made up of representatives of local governments, businesses, government agencies and advocacy groups.
The state's primary goal for the settlement money is to provide safe drinking water, primarily in Washington County communities, and the second goal is to enhance natural resources in the east metro, or downstream in the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers. If settlement funds remain, they may be spent on projects elsewhere in the state.
The groups will make recommendations to the PCA and the Department of Health in 2020. Then officials will make the final selections and construction will begin.
The timetable includes:
• A startup phase through December, in which the two panels learn about the polluting chemicals, the scope of the pollution, and other background information.
• A planning phase in 2019 when the groups will develop a "conceptual plan."
• An implementation phase starting in 2020, with no end date, when some projects will start and the groups will monitor their progress.
In addition, three subgroups will meet to study the proposals. The subgroups' starts are staggered, beginning this fall, in spring 2019 and in fall 2019.
Cottage Grove administrator Charlene Stevens said she understands why the multiyear schedule is necessary: "There is a lot of technical work to be done."
The advisory groups are months away from discussing any specific proposals, but the projects might include new city wells, water processing plants, filtration systems and pipes to tie them all together. One might be a $50 million water-processing plant that Cottage Grove asked the state to pay for.
Presently all drinking water from municipal systems - including Oakdale, Lake Elmo, St. Paul Park, Cottage Grove and Woodbury - is safe to drink. Cities have been able to filter the water or blend it with water from clean wells to reduce the pollution levels to state safety standards.
Some of their ongoing expenses are getting covered from a different source - a $40 million fund that 3M established in 2007.
That money is helping with short-term expenses related to the PFC cleanup, said the PCA's Koudelka.
He said that St. Paul Park's new water treatment plant might be a candidate for some of the short-term money. The plant, being built in Whitbred Memorial Park, is scheduled to open in April. The city was forced to respond to the discovery of pollution in two out of three city wells last spring.
"This will give us five or six years," said Public Works Supervisor Jeff Dionisopoulos. Regardless of who pays for it, the plant is necessary to guarantee safe drinking water, he said.
But he hopes that the settlement money will eventually support a newer and larger water plant.
The short-term fund is also paying for ongoing expenses in Cottage Grove.
That city has received $2.3 million so far, for expenses related to shutting eight of the city's 11 wells, digging a new well, and installing filter systems.
For reimbursements, Woodbury is involved only in a minor way. Five of the city's 19 wells have been shut down, but the city has been able to compensate fairly easily with the remaining clean wells.
To all cities, the short-term fund paid $4.5 million in 2017, according to Koudelka. He said the money will help cities until the long-term solutions are paid for.
But by the time that happens, the first drops of water will trickle through new facilities more than 17 years after the pollution was discovered in 2004.
"We do have a sense of urgency," said Cottage Grove's Stevens, who is hoping the city's water plant will be funded. "We want this done sooner rather than later."