What one school’s fight to eliminate PFAS says about Indian Country’s ‘forever chemical’ problem
As the United States begins to crack down on PFAS contamination, Indigenous communities are getting left behind.
Laurie Harper, director of education for the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, a K-12 tribal school on the Leech Lake Band Indian Reservation in northcentral Minnesota, never thought that a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, would be an issue for her community. That’s partly because, up until a few months ago, she didn’t even know what PFAS were. “We’re in the middle of the Chippewa National Forest,” she said. “It’s definitely not something I had really clearly considered dealing with out here.”
Late last year, tests conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that her school’s drinking water wells were contaminated with PFAS. Some of the wells had PFAS levels as high as 160 parts per trillion — 40 times higher than the 4 part-per-trillion threshold the federal government recently proposed as a maximum safe limit.
PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, are a global problem. The chemicals are in millions of products people use on a regular basis, including pizza boxes, seltzer cans, and contact lenses. They’re also a key ingredient in firefighting foams that have been sprayed into the environment at fire stations and military bases for decades. Over time, these persistent chemicals have migrated into drinking water supplies around the globe and, consequently, into people, where they have been shown to weaken immune systems and contribute to long-term illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
After the EPA’s tests came back, Harper, who oversees education for the whole Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, realized that some 300 students and faculty members at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School had been consuming PFAS-tainted water for an indeterminate amount of time, perhaps since the school’s founding in 1975. Now, the chemicals are all Harper thinks about, and their presence in the school’s water supply is a constant reminder of a problem with no obvious solution.
“We can’t not provide education,” Harper said. “So how do we deal with this?” Months after discovering the contamination, she’s still looking for answers.Beyond immediate concerns about how to get students clean water, the situation at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School raises larger questions for Indigenous nations across the United States: Is Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig the only tribal school with PFAS contamination in its water? And how pervasive are PFAS on tribal lands in general? But data on PFAS contamination on tribal lands is patchy at best. In many parts of the country, there’s no data at all.
“There is very little testing going on in Indian Country to determine the extent of contamination from PFAS to drinking water systems, or even surface waters,” said Elaine Hale Wilson, project manager for the National Tribal Water Council, a tribal advocacy group housed at Northern Arizona University. “At this point, it’s still difficult to gauge the extent of the problem.”
PFAS have been around since the middle of the 20th century, but they’ve only been recognized as a serious health problem in the past decade or so after a lawyer sued DuPont, one of the top U.S. manufacturers of PFAS, for poisoning rural communities in West Virginia. Since then, a growing body of research has shed light on the scope of the PFAS contamination problem in the United States — nearly half the nation’s water supply is laced with the chemicals — and water utilities are finally taking stock of what it will take to remediate the contamination. But for the 547 tribal nations in the U.S., there is nothing resembling a comprehensive assessment of PFAS contamination. Tribal water systems have gone largely untested because many of them are too small to meet the EPA’s PFAS testing parameters.
“We can certainly say that PFAS is an issue for every single person in the United States and its territories, that includes tribal areas,” Kimberly Garrett, a PFAS researcher at Northeastern University whose work has highlighted the lack of PFAS testing on tribes.
The federal government has a responsibility to protect the welfare of all Americans, but it has a legal obligation to tribes. In the 18th century, the government entered into some 400 treaties with Indigenous nations. Tribes reserved specific homelands, or were forcibly moved to places designated by the government, and guaranteed rights like fishing and hunting, as well as peace and protection. Experts say that responsibility to tribes includes protection from contaminants.
“Every treaty that assigns land to tribes impliedly guarantees that land as a homeland for the tribes,” said Matthew Fletcher, a law professor at the University of Michigan and a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. “Contaminated land is a breach of that treaty land guarantee.”
If PFAS are as widespread on tribal lands as they are in the rest of the U.S., many reservations likely have a public health emergency on their hands. They just don’t know it yet.
In some ways, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, known as the Bug School, got lucky. In December last year, the Environmental Protection Agency, armed with funding supplied by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in 2021, approached Leech Lake leaders to ask if the tribe would like to have its water tested for PFAS. The agency had $2 billion to help small or disadvantaged communities test their water supplies for emerging contaminants. The Bug School qualified as both.
When the tests came back positive, the school immediately started shipping in 5-gallon jugs of drinking water and the cafeteria started using bottled water to prepare meals. The school even paused a community gardening program meant to teach students about the value of fresh foods out of fear that the soil was contaminated.
The school knew that it had a contamination problem on its hands, but believed that the problem would be temporary — the measures it put in place were Band-Aids until a long-term solution was found. Months into the crisis, however, school administrators have yet to figure out a permanent fix. The school still doesn’t know where the contamination is coming from, and the cost of cleaning the chemicals out of its water supply threatens to be prohibitively expensive.
A satellite map of a school with wells labeled
A map of well and septic location sites provided as part of the water quality evaluation of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School. Courtesy of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School
PFAS remediation requires equipment, frequent testing, and dedicated personnel who have the capacity to monitor forever chemicals for years. Paying for PFAS cleanup is a tall order in large, affluent communities with the resources to address toxic contaminants. The midsize city of Stuart, Florida, discovered PFAS in its water supply in 2016 and, to date, has spent more than $20 million fixing the problem. The PFAS in their water still aren’t entirely gone.
On reservations, figuring out who’s responsible for testing for PFAS and paying for remediation is an impossible puzzle to crack, mainly because no one seems to know where the buck stops.
Federal PFAS testing has largely bypassed tribal public water systems. That’s because tribal systems are smaller, on average, than non-tribal public water systems. Every five years, the EPA tests the nation’s drinking water for “unregulated contaminants” — chemicals and viruses that are not regulated by the agency but pose a potential health threat to the public. The EPA finally included PFAS in its testing for unregulated contaminants in 2012, alongside a list of metals, hormones, and viruses. But it mainly tested systems that serve more than 10,000 people.
A study conducted by Northeastern University found that just 28 percent of the population served by tribal public water systems was covered by that round of PFAS testing, compared to 79 percent of the population served by non-tribal water systems. There were also no PFAS results for approximately 18 percent of the tribal water systems tested by the EPA “due to missing data or lack of sampling for PFAS,” the study said. To make matters more complicated, many Indigenous communities get their water from private wells, which are not monitored by the EPA. A recent study suggests a quarter of rural drinking water, much of which comes from private wells, is contaminated by PFAS.
Data on PFAS in tribal areas, experts emphasized over and over again, is extremely scarce. “We don’t know if PFAS is disproportionately affecting tribal areas,” Garrett said. “We won’t know that until we get more data.”
What limited data exists is outdated. The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that tracks PFAS contamination across the U.S., conducted a rough, preliminary PFAS estimate on tribal lands in 2021 using what data there was available at the time. It showed that there are nearly 3,000 PFAS contamination sites, like garbage dumps, within five-miles of tribal lands. The analysis is almost certainly an underestimate.
An interactive Environmental Working Group map tracks PFAS contamination near tribal lands. Screenshot captured here on August 11, 2023. Copyright © Environmental Working Group
The lack of PFAS testing on tribal lands is compounded by the fact that there is no one entity responsible for testing and treating tribal water systems for PFAS. That’s partly due to the fact that PFAS are a relatively new issue, but it also has a lot to do with the lack of centralized monitoring of tribal health in general. For example, American Indian and Alaska Native communities experienced some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the United States in 2020. But the siloed nature of tribal, local, state, and federal data collection systems means that no one has a real sense of just how many Indigenous people died in the pandemic, even years after the crisis began.
If history is any indication, Fletcher, the law professor, said, remediating these contaminants will be a game of push and pull between the federal government and tribes. In previous efforts to rid reservations of arsenic and lead contamination, he said, “usually the fights are the tribe insisting that the government do something and the government doing everything it can to avoid any kind of liability or obligation.”
In the 1990s, Rebecca Jim, a Cherokee activist and former teacher who was instrumental in raising awareness about lead poisoning among children in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, had to navigate a complicated patchwork of tribal governments, federal bureaus, and treaties to finally get the government to clean up the Tar Creek Superfund site on the Quapaw Nation — one of the agencies largest Superfunds. It took a decade for Jim and other activists to pressure the EPA into cleaning lead — the legacy of mining for materials used in bullets — out of Ottawa County, and she maintains that the EPA only started paying attention to what was happening in Tar Creek after a local masters student discovered that approximately one-third of children in a town in the county called Picher had lead poisoning.
“There’s always a fight,” Jim said. “It’s all about money and where you’re going to get the money to do the work.”
Jim said that testing for contaminants on tribal lands is generally the responsibility of the Indian Health Service, an agency housed within the National Institutes of Health, or falls to a given tribes’ own environmental protection office. But it becomes the EPA’s problem once the agency designates an area as a Superfund site, like Tar Creek was. Then, the EPA tries to go after the polluters responsible for the mess in the first place. If the agency is successful, Jim explained, there is generally ample funding for cleanup efforts. If a polluter can’t be pinned, it falls on the EPA to fund the cleanup, which is a more laborious and less thorough process because there’s fewer dollars to go around. And if the contamination occurs at a federally-controlled tribal school, like the Bug School, the Bureau of Indian Education is responsible. It’s a veritable maze of jurisdiction — even finding where you are in the maze is a tall order.
Laurie Harper’s efforts to untangle the bureaucratic knot that governs decision-making and testing for contaminants at the Bug School may serve as a lesson to other tribal schools that discover PFAS contamination in their water supplies. In February, two months after the EPA approached the school to offer PFAS testing, the results came back. The agency called the school immediately and said it needed to shut down its water system, an urgent request that caught administrators off guard. “We were still like, what? OK, how long is this going to last? Do we open the water? What do we do with it?” Harper said.
In March, desperate for answers, Harper traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with the director of the Bureau of Indian Education, or BIE, Tony Dearman, who heard her concerns about finding a long-term solution for the school.
What she didn’t find out until later, however, was that the BIE had already conducted its own testing at the Bug School in November 2022, during what Harper and other school administrators had assumed was just the agency’s annual compliance check. “They were already aware that the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school had tested high for PFAS,” Harper said. “They didn’t tell the school administration nor did they tell the tribe. They didn’t even tell the EPA.”
Unbeknownst to her, the BIE had sent a very short email to the school months earlier, in February, telling them that the bureau had found levels of two types of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — in the school’s water. When Harper finally tracked down that letter and read it, she was appalled by how vague the language was.
“We have received the PFAS (specifically, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)) results from the November 2, 2022 sampling event,” it read. “There were several exceedances of PFOA at Wells 1, 2, 3 and 4 and PFOS detection at Well 3 all were above the State limit for and EPA Health Advisory for PFOA and PFOS, please see attached spreadsheet.” The letter did not define what PFAS were or how dangerous they can be to human health. And it certainly did not make it clear to Bug School administrators that the school was in the midst of a public health crisis. “I’m an educator, not a hydrologist,” Dan McKeon, the school’s superintendent and the primary recipient of the letter. “There was notice of results that exceeded some standards, but no guidance about what that meant or what we should do.”
The BIE concluded the letter by telling the school that it would be conducting a second round of PFAS testing within 30 days to “confirm the analytical results” of its initial tests and then determine next steps, but the bureau didn’t return for testing until April 2023 — more than five months after the initial test, and weeks after Harper’s meeting with director Dearman. BIE, she was told by the bureau’s own leadership, was putting out fires on multiple fronts. “You’re not the only school that’s testing high for PFAS,” she recalls BIE’s supervisory environmental specialist telling her.
In a written response to questions from Grist, a spokesperson for the BIE said the bureau is “committed to providing schools with safe drinking water” that meets federal standards and that it is in the process of collecting water samples from BIE-owned public water systems at 69 schools. The bureau did not respond to questions from Grist about how many tribal schools exceed the EPA’s newly proposed 4-part-per-trillion PFAS limit.
In the past few years, Harper told Grist that two people who worked at the Bug School have died from cancer. Multiple female employees have thyroid issues. Harper knows that these diagnoses could be linked to hereditary, behavioral, or environmental exposures. But the deaths — the most recent, a man who died from testicular cancer just a year ago — have made solving the school’s PFAS situation feel even more urgent. Harper has been meeting with EPA, BIE, BIA, and state agencies to get the problem solved. “I’m so frustrated with how bureaucracy works,” she said. But she’s in the fight for the long haul, whatever it takes. “It’s the long-term solutions we’re interested in, not just the quick fix.”
Harper isn’t working in a vacuum; 2023 has been a breakthrough year for PFAS awareness and remediation nationwide. Earlier this summer, major manufacturers of PFAS, including Dupont and 3M, agreed to multi-billion-dollar settlements with cities and states across the country — the largest PFAS settlements thus far. At the end of July, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a tribe located about 115 miles southeast of the Bug School, filed a companion lawsuit, tied to those earlier settlements, against 3M for the cost of gathering data on PFAS, treating its drinking water supplies, fisheries, and soil for contamination, and monitoring the health of the tribe.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, a state agency that monitors environmental quality, has conducted a preliminary investigation into the PFAS contamination at the Bug School after school administrators alerted the agency to the problem, but that probe didn’t reveal what the source was. The agency said it will conduct another, “in-depth investigation involving soil and groundwater sampling” at the Bug school in the fall.
Also at the state level in Minnesota, a bill introduced in the legislature this year would permit Minnesotans who are exposed to toxic chemicals to sue the companies responsible for producing the chemicals and force those companies to pay for the cost of screening for conditions that are caused by exposure. 3M has fought these kinds of laws as they’ve cropped up in state legislatures because a legal right to seek medical monitoring will likely lead to a situation in which the company will have to pay billions of dollars’ worth of medical bills. But Harper is sure she can drum up support for the legislation. “I know I can convince other tribes to get behind a law that would allow medical monitoring in the state of Minnesota,” she said. “This is our land. These are our children. These are our families.”