Midwest river towns seek answers after 3M factory taints water with PFAS


This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Wisconsin Watch is a member of the networkSign up for our newsletter and donate to support our fact-checked journalism.

This fall, the towns and rural farmsteads along the Mississippi River received alarming news about their drinking water. Chemicals from a large 3M factory north of Cordova, Illinois found a way into the river and their wells.

The facility employs about 500 people and makes the adhesives used in Post-It notes, Scotch tape and other popular products. It also produces a family of chemicals called PFAS, otherwise known as “forever chemicals,” whose threat to human health has prompted increasing concern among federal and state environmental agencies.

Water and wastewater sampling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2019 detected the chemicals. Now the agency says the drinking water of nearly 300,000 people, including the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, will need additional testing to ensure it is safe.

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Earlier this month, the EPA announced that PFAS contamination from the 3M factory has created “an imminent and substantial endangerment” of public and private drinking water supplies. In a Nov. 2 EPA order, Minnesota-based 3M agreed to investigate PFAS contamination in private wells and public water systems up to 10 miles away from the plant.

3M’s factory along the Mississippi River, near the village of Cordova, Ill., manufactures adhesives for popular products like Post-Its Notes and Scotch Tape. Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that PFAS contamination from the 3M factory has created “an imminent and substantial endangerment” of public and private drinking water supplies. (Nick Rohlman / The Gazette)

The situation has left local officials in a dilemma: they want to reassure people about their drinking water, even as they face unanswered questions about health risks and who will pay to clean up the contamination.

City officials in Camanche, Iowa, announced in September that the municipal water, which serves almost 4,600 people, tested positive for two of the chemicals above EPA limits.

The city advised residents to contact their health care providers or consider installing home filters. Now, officials are informing water customers that the city is seeking “expert guidance” from state and federal authorities and will provide more information when it becomes available.

“As of right now, we are in a ‘test and wait’ phase on PFAS issues,” Camanche Public Works Director Gaylon Pewe wrote on the city’s website. City officials did not respond to a request for an interview.

Their announcements have not eased the fears of several Camanche residents, who on social media reacted to the city’s latest press release with dismay. Is the water safe to drink, several asked.


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