Two legal adversaries have found something they can agree on — the Mississippi River is clean enough.
The Metropolitan Council and 3M Co. have asked the state of Minnesota to declare that the pollution of the river by 3M’s chemicals wasn’t as bad as previously thought.
But at the same time, the Met Council is suing 3M for polluting the river.
The Met Council last year joined a lawsuit filed by the state attorney general, seeking compensation from 3M for pollution of the state’s waters. That suit cites 3M chemicals in the Mississippi as a prime example of pollution.
In separate letters, 3M and the council have asked the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to remove the river from the list of “impaired” waterways.
“It was 3M’s position years ago, and it is today, that there was never any evidence that it should have been impaired,” said Bill Brewer, partner in the 3M law firm Bickel & Brewer.
Now the Met Council has joined 3M, he said. “Both parties have reached the conclusion that this isn’t right,” Brewer said. “It isn’t right for the people in the metro area to think Pool 2 has any reason to be impaired.”
Pool 2 is a 33-mile section of the river that runs from the Ford Dam in St. Paul to Hastings.
But any change in the river’s status won’t happen until after April 2014, said Shannon Lotthammer, director of the environmental analysis and outcomes division for the state environmental agency.
She said the federal Environmental Protection Agency makes the final ruling about impairment of the nation’s waterways. The state department will submit a recommendation by April 2014, and the federal agency’s ruling is expected months after that.
Several years ago, the Minnesota Department of Health said that fish in Pool 2 were unsafe to eat more than once a month. The problem was the 3M chemical PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonate, found in the fish.
But recently, the PFOS levels in Minnesota have been dropping. In June, the Health Department took the only remaining species of fish — the freshwater drum — off the list of fish that should be eaten no more than once a month.
3M and the Met Council agree that the end of the fish warnings should mean the river is no longer impaired. But that’s about all they agree on.
The state lawsuit says 3M should be liable for damage to the environment because it manufactured PFOS.
Traces of PFOS have been found in the drinking water of 60,000 residents from Oakdale to Hastings, as well as in several lakes in the metro area.
But in court documents, 3M has argued that since it stopped making PFOS in 2002, it is no longer a significant source of PFOS pollution. The company has spent more than $100 million cleaning the chemical out of groundwater and drinking water.
So where is the PFOS coming from? Sewage treatment plants, says 3M.
The Met Council operates plants on the Mississippi and its tributaries, and 3M says wastewater is a continuing source of the PFOS.
Filtering the traces of PFOS from wastewater would be too costly, the Met Council said.
In an emailed response to questions on Monday, Nov. 26, Bonnie Kollodge, a spokesperson for the Met Council, said it would cost $1 billion to reduce the PFOS in the river by upgrading the treatment plants.
The Met Council has pointed out that the treated wastewater is five times as clean as drinking water in terms of PFOS levels. The pollution is measured in parts per trillion — for perspective, a trillion seconds equals about 32,000 years.
The Met Council argues that the sewage plant cleanup would not have an “appreciable impact” on water quality. Instead, it says, 3M should be forced to reduce PFOS by further treatments of discharges into the river.
PFOS is one of a family of chemicals made by 3M, starting in the 1940s. They were used for making household products including Teflon, Scotchgard stain repellent and fire extinguisher foam.
3M legally dumped the chemicals in landfills in Washington County until the 1970s. In 2004, traces of the chemicals were found in groundwater in much of southwestern Washington County.
Megadoses of the chemicals have been shown to cause thyroid problems, birth defects and cancer in laboratory mice. The chemicals have been detected in animals and people around the world.
But despite hundreds of studies and tests, the chemicals have not been shown to cause health problems in people at any dose. 3M has maintained that the levels in the environment are harmless to people and animals.