St. Paul, Minn. — Before there was an MPCA or even a Superfund cleanup program, people who lived near 3M’s Cottage Grove plant and its nearby Woodbury landfill had questions.
Susan Berndt’s family has lived in the area since before the Civil War. In the 1960s, neighbors and businesses dumped their trash in the woods not far from her family’s home. 3M had bought the landfill in 1961. She and the neighborhood kids would play amid household junk and derelict cars there.
“There were no fences. Or if there were, I was just a farm kid and we didn’t pay much attention to fences. You know, the land was pretty much free. We would just go wherever we wanted and people didn’t mind,” Berndt says. “It was a different, more innocent time. We didn’t think of things that could have hurt us. We never thought of chemicals at all.”
THE YEAR THE DUMP BURNED
Susan Berndt’s most vivid memory is of the year the dump burned. In the ’60s, cleanup meant burning what was there. In 1968, 3M burned the dump. The fire sent soot up into the air for weeks. 3M says the mass burning took place with the consent of nearby communities and the state. Berndt remembers skiing the woods near the fire, and how the snow had changed color.
“That winter when the dump was burning, there was a black layer. Then there’d be swirls of ash in a black layer in the snow, and there’d be clear white snow. It was so different from what it had been in the past,” Berndt says. “We also would eat the icicles off the house, and that year there was a lot of black particles in the icicles, and I remember that the icicles tasted very different.”
When the burning was over, Berndt recalls, 3M showed up at the family’s house, bearing gifts.
“Two guys from 3M came up in a car and they were going to give us a gift. They wanted to apologize for the burning for the last year, or however long it was,” Berndt recalls. “My brother was there, and they opened the car window just far enough to give him the box. And he pulled the box out and he ran in the house. He thought he had a great treasure. And that was their apology they gave us. For having to put up with the smoke and the smells for that period of time, they gave us a box of tape!”
Susan Berndt says this wasn’t her family’s last contact with 3M. She and her sister, Cindy Ratzlaff, recall men in 3M uniforms coming by without warning, to take water from their outdoor tap.
“The specific time that I remember was when I was babysitting at the neighbors. It was 1974, because their mother was in the hospital,” Ratzlaff says. “And the guy came and he went to the faucet, and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I’m just taking a water sample.’ He filled up a bag of water, rolled it up at the top and left with it.”
The two remember that the man had a 3M logo on the jacket he was wearing. They say he came twice that summer.
When asked if they were ever scared by these events — the fire and the water testing — Susan Berndt said she wasn’t at the time.
“But over the years there has been a lot of questioning about whether they really cleaned it up, and whether they were really truthful with us about what it was,” Berndt says.
SEEKING MORE ANSWERS
3M says in the mid-1960s, it tested some private wells for contamination — but not contamination for perfluorinated chemicals. The technology for those kinds of tests didn’t exist then. 3M says only one shallow well showed drinking water contamination. To solve the problem, the company replaced it with a deeper well.
Today, the Woodbury landfill is a grassy field surrounded by a tall cyclone fence. It’s managed by 3M in a voluntary program with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Stanley Hale lived near this landfill for 25 years. Hale is a white-haired, meticulous Englishman. Like a lot of people around here, he’s a former 3M employee. He leads a driving tour through his old neighhorhood where he lived and raised his family.
“So you know the location of the dump site? This one here? I lived down here on the left, so you can see why I had an active interest in finding out more about what was in that site,” Hale says.
The 3M smokestacks on the edge of the Mississippi River come into view. This is the 3M Cottage Grove plant, the one the locals know as Chemolite.
“Now this is the facility where a number of years ago I tried to get details on the total emission — not this stack, not that one, but the grand total of all emissions,” says Hale.
In the 1990s, Hale organized other residents who shared his concerns about potential ground and air contamination from the plant and landfill.
Winston Riedesel is one of Hale’s old compatriots. Reidesel is a retired civil engineer. He’s tall and thin, with large glasses. We settle into his tidy living room with a picture window and a bird clock.
“I’d ask people down there in that area, ‘Do you know the Chemolite plant — do you know what they do?’ And nobody knew. They’d been there for all their lives and nobody knew, and that just amazed me,” says Riedesel.
Depending on the direction the wind blows, Riedesel and his family can smell the plant. Riedesel complains that 3M hasn’t been open enough about what it’s producing and burning in its incinerator. 3M gave Riedesel a tour of the plant. But he still wasn’t satisfied with answers from the company, or from the MPCA and other public officials.
“Everybody was in bed with 3M, and they were all just sleeping together,” he says. “Nobody was looking out for the health and welfare of the citizens.”
Riedesel says he’s been frustrated about this for years. He even testified at a Cottage Grove City Council meeting back in 1998.
In 1996, the Old Cottage Grove Concerned Citizens Group petitioned the Cottage Grove City council to ban housing developments near the landfill, until the MPCA could prove the underground pollution was contained.
At a meeting on Sept. 2, 1998, the MPCA and 3M had been invited to answer residents’ questions about the cleanup of the adjacent Woodbury landfill.
The MPCA showed maps of the contaminated groundwater. At that point in time, the agency did not know to test for perfluorinated chemicals.
3M was piping this groundwater to the plant, and then to the Mississippi River.
Sheryl Corrigan, a senior environmental engineer with 3M, explained the water was used as a coolant at the Cottage Grove chemical plant, and also at a power plant.
“There is a monitoring plant before it’s discharged to the Mississippi, and it’s consistently clean,” Corrigan said in a videotape of the 1998 meeting.
3M says according to the standards of the day, the water was clean. MPCA records estimate 45 tons of perfluorochemical wastes are buried at the Woodbury landfill. The groundwater below the landfill is not treated before it reaches the Mississippi River.
Based on new data it recieved from 3M, the MPCA calculates that the Cottage Grove plant released about 50,000 pounds of perfluorinated chemicals into the river each year. That amount is five times higher than an original MPCA estimate made in Feb. 2005 at the request of Minnesota Public Radio.
Today, 3M has installed filters at the plant to catch most of the perfluorinated chemicals.
3M’s Sheryl Corrigan was also, for a time, Dave Douglas’ counterpart on the Cottage Grove Superfund site. As a 3M representative, it was her job to give him data about the contamination there. In 2002, Corrigan left 3M to become commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.