A group of Washington County residents finally got their day in court Monday — with opening arguments in the 3M Co. water pollution lawsuit.
“For decades, 3M and Washington County have had a pact, of sorts,” attorney Martha Wivell said to a jury. By knowingly polluting the county’s water, she said, “3M broke that pact.”
Nonsense, said 3M attorney Cooper Ashley.
Ashley said that during the eight-week trial, he will show the Maplewood-based company acted responsibly at every turn, keeping the public informed about traces of chemicals in drinking water and spending millions to remove it.
The trial pits 3M against four Washington County residents — Gary and Karen Paulson, Brad Krank and Bill Henry.
Their earlier claims that the chemicals injured them were thrown out in December by District Judge Mary Hannon. Wivell told jurors Monday that 3M owes the four residents money because the chemicals depressed their property values by about 15 percent. In the cases of their three homes, damages would be about $100,000 total.
The lawyers also are asking for punitive damages — of an unspecified amount — for what they call 3M’s negligence.
Wivell said the company has made PFCs — perfluorochemicals — since the late 1940s. 3M used them to make household products including Teflon and Scotchgard stain repellent.
The chemicals, she said, are very long-lasting. “That is good for the products, and it’s bad for the environment,” Wivell said. Traces of PFCs have been found worldwide in humans and animals.
She said the company knew PFCs were seeping from various Washington County dumpsites into groundwater, citing 3M memos and letters saying:
Chemicals in groundwater would be “a cause for concern.”
When 3M found that PFCs were in the blood of workers in the PFC factories, it gave them bottled water, protective clothing and respirator masks.
(In 1995) that “Bioaccumulation (of PFCs) in people is unacceptable.”
The company put other harmful chemicals into pits lined with clay to prevent leaching — but not PFCs.
“They cut corners to save on the bottom line,” Wivell said.
After PFCs were discovered in drinking water, the four plaintiffs, she said, were warned by officials not to drink it. They were given bottled water and water filters for their homes.
“Why is this important? It goes to the harm that 3M caused these people and the people in this area,” Wivell said.
The pollution could have unexpected consequences, she said. For example, if the plaintiffs ever wanted to install a geothermal system to “save 90 percent” on winter heating bills, the pollution would prevent that. She didn’t explain why.
Now, she said, when they sell their homes, they must disclose the pollution on a form.
“There is not a single bit of evidence that 3M got permission to put this (PFCs) on their property. It will be very difficult to sell their homes,” she said.
3M lawyer Ashley said 3M memos actually show the company acted responsibly from the beginning.
“3M has a long history of transparency, communication and reporting” to officials about the PFCs, he said. “3M didn’t cut corners. It spent money to prevent pollution from going into the environment.”
He told the jury: “They have no experts saying we did anything wrong. Ask yourself: Where are the experts?”
Every one of the plaintiffs, he said, now lives in a home where water-quality concerns have been fixed, through filtration or hookups with city water. “The water is all fine,” he said.
Furthermore, the plaintiffs’ exposure to the chemicals was slight, he said, measured in parts per billion. The Paulsons, he said, “have never been with a water supply that does not meet state standards.”
Ashley said environmental practices in the 1950s were like another world.
There was no state Pollution Control Agency or federal Environmental Protection Agency. The state Health Department was concerned only about surface water, not underground water used for drinking. Companies like 3M contracted with waste haulers that dumped the materials in Washington County landfills.
Ashley cited the abundant communications from 3M regarding the presence of PFCs. He listed more than 75 communications with local, state and federal government about the PFCs in water.
He even cited a 1981 headline in the Pioneer Press alerting the public to the PFCs.
Furthermore, he said, the company offered information and money to fix the pollution.
He cited a memo from the EPA saying, “3M gets credit for coming forward voluntarily” with warnings about PFCs.
The trial is scheduled to continue today with witnesses for the plaintiffs.