Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson filed suit against the 3M Co. on Thursday, demanding that it pay the cleanup costs for decades of pollution caused by chemicals that have leached into the Mississippi River and the drinking water of communities across the east-metro area.
“The company caused damage to the environment,” Swanson said. “We are simply asking, let’s make it right.”
3M spokesman Bill Nelson said on Thursday that the chemicals involved, perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, are not hazardous materials, as defined by state and federal law, and that the environment has not been harmed. Problems related to high PFC concentrations in drinking water have been resolved as part of an agreement between the state and the company in 2007, he said.
“No one in the east metro is drinking water with PFCs above government guidelines,” he said.
The suit was filed in Hennepin County District Court after months of fruitless out-of-court settlement talks between the state and Maplewood-based 3M. It begins another chapter in the long saga around the PFCs that have leached from four sites in the Twin Cities and that have already cost the company millions for cleanup and remediation.
‘It’s necessary,’ mayor says
Many have said it was time that the state took more aggressive action against 3M. Myron Bailey, mayor of Cottage Grove, said he wants the company to fund a new water treatment plant for the city that would ensure clean drinking water but could cost many millions of dollars. Concerns about water quality are hurting the city’s development potential, he said, and some 30 homeowners with high concentrations of PFCs in their wells are forced to drink bottled water or use filtration systems, problems that have hurt their property values.
“I do believe it’s necessary,” Bailey said of the lawsuit. “My concern is to make sure the citizens feel their water is 100 percent safe to drink.”
Nelson said 3M’s continuing efforts show its commitment to addressing PFC issues.
Outgoing state Rep. Julie Bunn, DFL-Lake Elmo, said that new problems related to PFCs are still cropping up. The city of Lake Elmo recently drilled a new well to supply the community, only to find that by the time it was finished that PFC concentrations in the water exceeded state standards.
“They did not anticipate that the pollution plume would be down that far,” Bunn said. “Then they found that it was.”
PFCs are chemicals that do not occur in nature and do not decompose. As a result, they accumulate in the environment, in fish and in people. In the past decade, PFCs have been linked to cancer in animal studies and to higher cholesterol in humans. They are viewed as an emerging health concern by federal health officials, and research on their potential harm has just begun.
Nelson, however, said that PFCs have not been found “to cause adverse health effects at the levels we see in the environment.”
Minnesotans have been exposed to them since the 1940s, when 3M started using the compounds at its Cottage Grove plant to make Scotchgard, nonstick cookware and firefighting foam. For decades, 3M legally dumped manufacturing waste in area landfills and at the plant. Minnesota and Alabama, where 3M also had facilities that used PFCs, are among the few states where these chemicals were made and used.
Lake Elmo resident Dave Moore, 65, said he and his wife used contaminated water from their well for years without knowing it. Now, he has high cholesterol and high concentrations of certain PFCs in his blood, he said, and 2 1/2 years ago his wife died of cancer.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “But that’s why the public needs to pay more attention.”
Steps by 3M
The company phased out use of the compounds by 2002, and state health officials say that contamination levels have been essentially stable since 2004.
In 2007, 3M reached agreement with the state on a cleanup plan for the sites where PFCs had leached into drinking water. Excavation and other work is completed or underway at three 3M sites in Oakdale, Woodbury and Cottage Grove. The company also agreed to pay $8 million as part of the costs to rebuild the former Washington County landfill where it sent wastes.
3M has also spent several million dollars in Oakdale to build a new filtration system for some city wells and in Lake Elmo to expand the city’s water system to more than 200 homeowners whose private wells were contaminated. Minnesota Health Department tests have shown traces of contaminants in hundreds of other wells in Woodbury and Cottage Grove, some at concentrations high enough to recommend bottled water or home filtration systems.
However, the cleanup deal did not address groundwater that was contaminated as the chemical spread for years beneath parts of those communities. Nor did it deal with PFCs found in the Mississippi River near the Cottage Grove plant or in fish contaminated downstream.
In May, the state agreed to hold off filing suit against 3M until Dec. 30, pending the outcome of settlement talks. Those ended without an agreement in October, state officials said. Both state and company officials declined to explain why the talks failed.
The lawsuit says more than 100 square miles of groundwater have been contaminated, including four aquifers that serve as the only source of drinking water for about 125,000 Minnesotans, and 139 miles of the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to Winona.
“The state is acting as a trustee for the environment and for the drinking water and for the fish,” Swanson said.
Nelson said that the company is already doing everything that it can to address contaminated drinking water and that it can’t go back and undo the damage to groundwater.
“We are puzzled as to why there is a lawsuit,” he said. “We are demonstrating our commitment to cleaning up PFCs in the east metro.”