An enormous lawsuit over water is getting smaller.
In a ruling Friday, a judge limited a lawsuit charging that chemicals manufactured by the 3M Co. polluted water and hurt Washington County homeowners.
Washington County District Judge Mary Hannon ruled the chemicals — PFCs, or perfluorochemicals — found in drinking water cannot legally be considered a “nuisance.” She said the term defines something that impairs the use or enjoyment of someone’s property and that homeowners’ inconveniences, such as having to buy a $30 filtration system, were relatively minor.
In three other aspects of the suit, however, Hannon ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor:
• She will hear arguments that the company was negligent when it dumped the chemicals in landfills. She defined negligence as a “breach” of a “duty of care,” followed by an injury. She ruled that damages to nearby property were “reasonably foreseeable” by 3M after the company dumped the PFCs into landfills.
• The chemicals may be considered a form of trespassing. Trespass, she said, is “unlawful entry” of someone’s property. This can include “throwing or placing an object on the property of another.”
• She will consider arguments that 3M should pay the homeowners punitive damages based on damage to their property.
The case involves chemicals found in the drinking water of about 60,000 people in Washington County. The trial is scheduled for May 4.
3M spokesman Bill Nelson would not
When a group of Washington County residents sued 3M for damages in 2006, it was potentially one of the largest environmental lawsuits in state history. A 2005 lawsuit in Ohio involving the same chemicals resulted in a ruling against the DuPont company for $300 million. omment on the ruling, and neither would plaintiffs’ attorney Rob Billott.
But in Minnesota, the suit has suffered setbacks. Hannon ruled in 2007 that all the allegedly injured parties could not sue as a group, denying them class-action status.
In January, she threw out all claims of injury or even emotional distress. She was persuaded by 3M’s arguments that the traces of PFCs did not hurt anyone.
The controversy began in 2004, when traces of PFCs were discovered in drinking water. The affected area included a swath of Washington County from Lake Elmo to Hastings.
The chemicals were made by 3M starting in the 1940s for use in producing such products as Teflon and Scotchgard stain repellent.
The company legally dumped leftovers from the manufacturing process into landfills in Washington County, ending in the 1970s. After that, the PFCs are believed to have leached into the groundwater of much of the county.
The company stopped making the chemicals in 2002.
PFCs degrade slowly in nature, and traces of them have been found in animals and humans around the world. In large quantities, PFCs can cause thyroid problems and birth defects in mice. But state officials have said the levels in Washington County’s drinking water are so small that the water could be consumed daily for a lifetime with no appreciable health effects.