Despite a six-figure legal settlement, it’s been a hard road for researcher Fardin Oliaei.
When the news broke last month that the state and 3M are in settlement talks over damage to natural resources caused by contamination from perfluorochemicals produced by the Minnesota-based manufacturing giant, Fardin Oliaei was paying close attention.
No surprise there.
Over the course of her 16-year career with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Oliaei was among the first scientists in the state to sound the alarm about PFCs, a family of synthetic compounds that 3M manufactured for over half a century for use in such varied products as water-proofing agents, nonstick cookware, fire-fighting foam, and food packaging.
Her research showed PFC contamination to be widespread in Minnesota, with the seemingly ubiquitous chemicals turning up everywhere from fish in Voyageur’s National Park to drinking water supplies in east metro communities near 3M waste disposal sites.
While the effects on human health from PFC exposure are unknown, scientists worry because the chemicals accumulate in living tissue and take a long time to break down, much like other persistent toxins such as PCBs and dioxin.
Oliaei’s willingness to talk publicly about her PFC research helped bring the issue to public attention in Minnesota. In 2005, Minnesota Public Radio aired a documentary series about PFCs, “Toxic Traces,” which questioned the state’s handling of the problem. Oliaei’s cooperation with MPR became a point of contention with her superiors at the MPCA.
In a whistleblower lawsuit she filed against the MPCA, Oliaei accused supervisors of trying to shut her up and bury her research. Among those singled out was then-MPCA commissioner Sheryl Corrigan, a former 3M executive.
In 2006, Oliaei left the MPCA with a $325,000 settlement, plenty of hard feelings over her ouster, and professional and personal struggles ahead.
“It has been very difficult for me. I’ve been constantly applying for jobs, naively optimistic,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I have been blacklisted from any possible job.”
Unable to secure full-time employment, single and with two college-age sons, Oliaei said, she was eventually forced to sell her prized North Oaks home.
“I hate to say it, but this is the reality: I’m homeless,” said Oliaei, now staying with a sister out of state. “I lost everything. I left the agency with my 49 boxes of PFC research. When I sold the house, I let everything go at an estate sale for almost nothing — except for those boxes. I took those with me.”
Then she adds with a wry laugh: “I hope I can make a fire with them one day.”
Still, Oliaei continues to follow the convoluted scientific, political, and legal wrangling over the PFC problem. She remains proud of her research and its legacy. In the wake of her resignation, the MPCA and 3M signed agreements on PFC clean-up plans for three former dump sites. 3M also installed filtration system on the Oakdale municipal water supply and provided bottled water for residents with private wells.
“PFC is not a forbidden word anymore, as it was during my last three years at the agency when the managers told me, ‘Fardin, don’t mention PFC or you will lose your job,’” Oliaei said.
Agency conflict of interest?
Still, Oliaei remains critical of the relationship between her former agency and 3M, contending that the MPCA relies too much on 3M-sponsored science. “I believe that 3M is dictating what the health department and the PCA do,” she said. If in charge, she added, she would “take a more assertive position with defining the project, and work with the scientists — international scientists, rather than 3M scientists.”
At the Legislature, where she testified about PFCs after her ouster from the MPCA, Oliaei still has some supporters.
State Senator John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said Oliaei’s efforts “made a big difference.”
“I don’t think anyone was paying attention to PFCs before her,” Marty said, adding that Oliaei knew she was risking her job when she defied her bosses by speaking out. Her ouster was both “a personal tragedy” and a loss to the state, he added.
State Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, said Oliaei’s 2006 testimony at the Capitol was prophetic. “Everything Fardin said when she testified to the Senate has proven to be true. It just took a couple of years to come out,” said Clark, who called Oliaei “a heroine in her day.”
“I do think Fardin did us all a tremendous public service and she paid dearly,” added Clark. (Clark is the executive director of the Women’s Environmental Institute, where Oliaei has done some PFC consulting work in recent years).
Jeff Ruch, the executive director of the D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said many whistleblowers struggle to find work after going public.
“There are very few whistleblowers who become winners. It’s almost never a path to enrichment or success. It is almost invariably a career-altering experience, and often a career-ending experience,” Ruch observed.
Ruch said other scientists at the MPCA shared many of Oliaei’s concerns about PFCs but chose not to be so vocal. “Her experience reinforces the fact that the prudent course is to remain quiet,” said Ruch.
Despite her professional woes, Oliaei said she has managed to earn some post-MPCA income as a result of her PFC expertise. Last year, she testified in a case brought against 3M by Washington County residents who alleged that their property values were diminished by groundwater contamination from 3M produced PFCs. That case ended in June 2009 when a jury sided with 3M.
In 2008, Oliaei received a Bush Foundation grant to study at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Ironically, Oliaei notes, the Bush Foundation was established by a former 3M chairman, Archibald Bush.
But her experience as a whistleblower has been, on the whole, bitter.
Not long ago, Oliaei said, she attended a PFC conference sponsored by the EPA, where she ran into some of her former co-workers. “When I saw my colleagues, I wondered, what have I done that they avoid talking to me? They looked at me like I was some kind of troublemaker,” she recalled.
That, too, is in keeping with the usual fate of whistleblowers, according to PEER’s Ruch.
“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t,” Ruch said, quoting Admiral Hyman Rickover.
Oliaei holds out hope that she might be able to return to a state job, perhaps even at the MPCA, if there is a shakeup at the agency after the next election. (Rep. Clark said she had spoken with “a gubernatorial candidate” who expressed interest in finding state work for Oliaei.)
“These were my babies they took away from me,” Oliaei said of her PFC research. “I’d like to continue feeding them, and go forward.”
Given the opportunity to back into the past, would Oliaei act differently? Not much.
“To be very honest, if you put me in the same position, I would do the same things but more cautiously. I would not settle with three years of my salary. And I would not settle without making sure that I have another job,” she said.