Attorneys will square off today in a high-stakes lawsuit about whether 3M chemicals in groundwater threaten the health of thousands of residents in the east metro area.
The case was filed on behalf of six named residents, but approximately 1,000 others have joined, mostly from Lake Elmo and Oakdale, according to court documents. They claim that their health was compromised and their properties were devalued because their drinking water was contaminated by chemicals 3M dumped years ago into nearby landfills.
The question before Washington County Judge Mary Hannon is whether to certify the case as a class-action proceeding. Her decision is a critical step because it could increase the size of a potential judgment and turn the dispute into one of the larger environmental damage cases in state history.
3M denies that the contamination poses any health threat, based on hundreds of studies and more than 25 years of monitoring its employees who have been exposed to the chemicals. The company phased out the compounds in 2002, saying it was concerned about their accumulation in the environment.
Eric Janus, vice dean and professor at William Mitchell College of Law, said what’s at stake is whether the lawsuit, filed in October 2004, remains a collection of individual claims against 3M or a single claim involving thousands more people.
“Defendants generally don’t like class actions because it really increases their exposure to liability and the risk of fairly high damages,” Janus said. “That’s particularly important where the harm to individuals is perhaps relatively small, but there are a large number of individuals.”
The compounds, known as perfluorochemicals (PFCs), which do not degrade in the environment, were used in popular products such as 3M’s Scotchgard and DuPont’s Teflon. 3M manufactured them for more than 50 years at its Cottage Grove plant and sent product wastes to at least three area dumps between 1956 and 1974, two of them near Oakdale and Lake Elmo.
Two months ago, health officials also detected a 3M chemical called PFBA in municipal drinking water in Woodbury, Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Hastings, Newport and South St. Paul. A number of those residents could be eligible to become plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Ties to DuPont case
Some of the lawyers in the 3M lawsuit also took part in a case against the DuPont Co. that was certified as a class action in 2002. That suit claimed that DuPont had contaminated drinking water for about 80,000 residents in six communities in West Virginia and Ohio with a chemical called PFOA. 3M sold the chemical to DuPont for products such as nonstick cookware, and PFOA was also detected in Lake Elmo and Oakdale wells.
The West Virginia case was settled out of court, and DuPont agreed to pay for clean drinking water, community health evaluations and, if necessary, medical monitoring of individuals. The cost to DuPont could exceed $300 million.
Attorneys for both sides in the Minnesota case declined to be interviewed, saying that their court filings speak for themselves.
In those documents, the plaintiffs argue that 3M has known for decades that the PFCs accumulate in the blood of humans and animals. The residents claim that the company has withheld information about the toxicity of the chemicals, which in animal studies have caused liver damage, increased cancer risk and other problems.
The named plaintiffs are Terry and Pamela Maslowski, Gary and Karen Paulsen, William Henry and Bradley Krank. Their lawyers said tens of thousands of other residents in the east metro area could potentially have been drinking water at concentrations above protective levels set by state health officials. As a result, they said, the case should be certified as a class action because of the “common way in which the chemicals affect humans and the exposed community as a whole.”
The specific claims are that 3M violated laws regarding negligence, trespass, battery and private nuisance and that the company should also face claims for damages under Minnesota’s Superfund law. In court filings, attorneys for 3M disagree vehemently that exposure to PFCs has affected anyone’s health or property values.
“To 3M’s knowledge, no physician anywhere has diagnosed any person plaintiff or otherwise as having suffered any illness or disease as a consequence of having been exposed to PFCs,” they said. If individuals want to sue the company, they said, their claims need to be examined on a case-by-case basis including such details as where they lived, how much water they drank and for how long, how susceptible they are to illness, what symptoms they’ve experienced and other factors.
3M attorneys also argue that just because a chemical can be detected at low levels in drinking water does not mean that it causes disease or is otherwise unsafe. The company has monitored its employees for decades who worked with the chemicals and have found no adverse health effects related to that exposure, they say.
3M attorneys also say the case is “lawyer-driven” lawsuit, and that attorneys conducted a door-knocking campaign to sign up east metro residents and have their blood tested. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said that they have acted ethically, and that 3M should have taken responsibility to offer blood tests to willing citizens once the contaminated groundwater was discovered.
As part of the litigation, 3M has provided 1.5 million pages of documents, most of them sealed by the court, that include studies, data and internal correspondence that encompass a half century of working with PFCs.