Two years ago, thousands of east metro residents were frantically trying to find out if their water was safe to drink.
The Minnesota Department of Health had found old 3M chemicals in the drinking water of six communities, in addition to discoveries two years earlier in Oakdale and Lake Elmo.
“The first feeling was fear. People just went off the deep end,” said Myron Bailey, then a Cottage Grove City Council member and now the city’s mayor. “I was trying to calm people down until we could learn more.”
Fears have subsided, but the conflict continues. Monday, jury selection begins for a lawsuit arising from the contamination.
The civil case by four Washington County residents seeks punitive damages against 3M for negligence and continuing trespass. It’s a narrower version of the case originally filed in late 2004. In 2007, Washington County District Judge Mary Hannon denied the plaintiffs’ motion to certify the case as a class action involving many more affected residents. The case was further weakened in recent months when Hannon dismissed their claims of nuisance and personal injury.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not return calls to comment on the case. In court papers they charge that 3M “negligently, carelessly, wrongfully and/or intentionally failed to disclose to citizens of the area” that it had dumped chemical wastes in area landfills, despite knowing that the compounds would not break down and would spread to pollute drinking water supplies and damage property. The plaintiffs are Gary and Karen Paulson, William Henry and Bradley Krank.
3M officials have said repeatedly that the trace levels of chemicals in water are not a health threat, and that 3M employees exposed to much higher concentrations of the compounds have been monitored for decades without any signs of harm.
“We’re prepared to defend against the remaining claims in the case,” said 3M spokesman Stephen Sanchez.
Jury selection for the case will probably take several days, according to court officials, and the trial may take six to eight weeks.
Bailey remembers vividly Jan. 19, 2007, the day state health officials announced that perfluorochemicals (PFCs) had been detected in city wells of Cottage Grove, Woodbury, St. Paul Park, Newport, South St. Paul and Hastings.
3M manufactured the compounds at its Cottage Grove plant from about 1950 until 2002. They have been used in hundreds of products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water, including Scotchgard, non-stick cookware, paper coatings, lubricants, firefighting foam and film.
The reaction was swift and widespread. Restaurants wanted to know whether they could still serve water. Homeowners wanted to know if they needed to drink bottled water, and whether filters would remove contaminants. Hundreds of private well owners wanted their water tested — now. Everyone wanted to learn if they and their families were at risk from drinking contaminated water for dozens of years.
Some fears receded as health officials explained that chemicals at such low levels would not cause immediate problems, although little was known about long-term effects or how long the chemicals had been in the water. Concerns melted a bit more in February 2008, when state health authorities said that the chemical concentrations in nearly all cases were below the levels of concern.
But the discoveries also touched off a major groundwater investigation by state health and pollution officials, who tested more than 1,600 private wells and 50 community wells, and advised 83 households not to drink their water.
The contamination set in motion investigations and cleanups at the four major sources of the groundwater pollution. 3M buried PFC wastes at its Cottage Grove plant, the Washington County landfill in Lake Elmo, and two dumps in Oakdale and Woodbury between 1956 and 1974.
Millions for cleanup
After the earliest contamination discoveries in 2004 and 2005, 3M spent about $2.5 million for a carbon filtration system to remove chemicals from Oakdale city wells. It also spent $4.3 million to expand Lake Elmo’s water system and to hook up more than 200 homes whose private wells were affected. In May 2007, the company signed an agreement with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to provide $8 million to help clean up Washington County landfill and to bear full responsibility for cleaning up the other sites. That work, estimated to cost more than $50 million, is at various stages of planning and additional testing. Excavating and removing some wastes will begin this summer.
Rep. Julie Bunn, DFL-Lake Elmo, said that the cleanups represent significant progress to remove the sources of contamination, but they do not take care of the huge plume of underground water that’s been polluted. “What’s in the water cannot be fixed,” Bunn said. “The goal is to stop further spread and look for improvement over a long period of time while we make sure people are protected.”
Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said that the issue is far from over. “There are still pockets of areas in Cottage Grove where there is new contamination being reported or new levels of PFCs showing up,” she said, and the debate about what levels of PFCs are safe is an “evolving issue” that will change as scientists learn more about the chemicals.
Mayor Bailey said that about 30 Cottage Grove families are still on state-funded bottled or filtered water and many others remain nervous. “Even though the health department says it’s fine, people think about it and I hear about it a lot,” said Bailey. “The feeling is it’s still in the water and they want it out.”