The rendezvous spot was the Starbucks at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport baggage claim area.
3M representatives greeted university and federal scientists there as their planes arrived and whisked them to the Wildwood Lodge in Lake Elmo. There, for two days in September, the scientists met and dined with 3M experts to discuss the latest research about chemicals once used for Scotchgard and other products.
The next month 3M organized another two-day private seminar for government scientists in Washington, D.C.
The closed-door meetings, coming just as the Environmental Protection Agency is considering new safety guidelines for those chemicals in drinking water, are raising concerns about undue industry influence.
“These are some of the most problematic chemicals ever made, and we can’t make decisions about how we protect the public from them in secret meetings,” said Richard Wiles, vice president for policy at the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington.
3M spokesman Bill Nelson said that the September gathering was one of many routine meetings between company and government scientists over the years, and that it included top researchers from several universities.
“3M takes issue with the suggestion that regulatory decisions are being made or discussed at these meetings when the meetings are intended to be simply an exchange of information and data,” he said.
Health officials not invited
3M made the compounds, known as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), for half a century at its Cottage Grove plant. It buried wastes in area dumps decades ago. In 2007, groundwater contamination discovered in 10 east-metro communities was traced to those chemicals, triggering a massive cleanup that began last year.
But concerns about the chemicals continue. Last fall, the EPA put the chemicals on a short list because of “strong concern about the risks that those chemicals pose.”
The Wildwood Lodge meetings were discovered by Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati attorney who worked on cases against DuPont Corp. for tainting drinking water in West Virginia, Ohio and New Jersey with the same chemicals 3M buried in the east metro. He was also part of a team that represented three Washington County families that unsuccessfully sued 3M for damages for water contamination.
“We would like to see these meetings occurring in a public meeting process so that all interested stakeholders could participate,” Bilott said.
Nelson disagreed. “It borders on ridiculous,” he said, to open all meetings to everyone, and said that other interested parties can request their own meetings with the EPA. “I can see why personal injury lawyers would like to be involved in the process, but unless they are scientists, we believe the process works in terms of having scientists communicate with each other.”
Scientists at the Minnesota Department of Health would have appreciated a heads-up. The department was not informed about either meeting, despite its role in testing cities’ water and about 1,200 private wells in the east metro, most of them tainted by the chemicals.
“We would have been very interested in attending had we known about it,” said Helen Goeding, research scientist and toxicologist for the Health Department. Goeding and others also established health risk limits for two of the PFCs, and guidelines for a third. They concluded that much of the groundwater in the east metro is safe to drink.
EPA officials did not respond to requests for an interview, but provided the names of those who attended and the agenda, and said the workshop cost the agency about $10,050 for travel and accommodations. Five EPA scientists flew in from Washington and five came from Research Triangle Park in North Carolina to join experts from 3M and a handful of universities.
Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, who represents residents affected by the contamination, said that state health experts should have been notified and allowed to attend, at least as observers. In addition to extensive groundwater testing and drinking water advisories, the department conducted a biomonitoring study last year that checked for PFCs in the blood of 100 east-metro volunteers.
“If EPA is looking at having a national standard for what levels are considered safe, then certainly communities that have the PFCs in their water should have some input and transparency into the process or into the discussion,” Sieben said.
It is also critical for the state to understand the latest scientific research, she said, to learn if the chemicals are more dangerous than previously understood.
Two-day seminar in D.C.
Three weeks after the Minnesota workshop, half a dozen 3M scientists traveled to the EPA offices in Washington and joined DuPont experts to present their case to a larger group of government scientists and decision-makers.
The industry requested the meeting. An EPA memo last June indicated that 3M, DuPont and other firms were “worried that they would be cut out of the development process” if the agency changes safety limits for PFCs in drinking water.
For Wiles, the size, scope and timing of the meeting is a red flag. “EPA is going to be making decisions, and the industry’s trying to influence the decision-making process,” he said. “You’ve got to have everybody at the table.”
Mike Santoro, 3M director of Environmental, Health, Safety and Regulatory Affairs, chaired the October meeting, according to EPA documents. Nearly all of the speakers were 3M or DuPont scientists. Dozens of EPA researchers and managers were informed about the presentations, and attended either in person or by teleconference.
At least one person in the EPA questioned the secrecy surrounding the meetings beforehand.
“I would not be surprised if there is interest in the press and among the other interested parties,” he wrote. “We may want to be ready to answer them when they ask if they can attend.”
A response from Edward Ohanian, director of EPA’s Health and Ecological Criteria Division, confirmed that the meeting was “not public.” The EPA’s position, Ohanian wrote, was that DuPont and 3M requested the meeting to share data, and the agency’s routine practice is to accommodate those requests whether they come from industry, environmental groups or others.
In a statement, EPA said that it is not feasible “to facilitate a public discussion on every issue or presentation of data brought to the agency’s attention,” and that the October presentations are available on the EPA’s website.
Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey was upset to learn about the meetings. 3M promised the city to be forthright and open about PFC issues, he said, and has not honored its word.
“I have a feeling that we haven’t been told the whole story as it relates to PFCs,” Bailey said. “When behind-the-scenes type meetings happen, all that does is make our community feel like there’s something being hidden.”