St. Paul, Minn. — Republican Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty named Sheryl Corrigan to be commmissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2002. The governor said he was looking for an environmental watchdog with a business perspective.
Corrigan says a 3M manager recommended her for the job.
“My understanding is a former boss of mine forwarded my name as someone who had the kind of experience the Pawlenty administration was looking for, in terms of an environmental management background,” says Corrigan.
Corrigan still owns stock in her former employer, 3M. By law, she reported her 3M stock holdings to the Ethical Practices Board. She told Minnesota Public Radio it amounts to about $20,000.
Corrigan says she has had no contact with MPCA staff who handle 3M matters from the time she took office. She put her recusal from 3M matters into writing a year and a half later. The letter was addressed to her top managers and the governor. It was not distributed to MPCA staff.
FROM 3M TO THE MPCA
At MPCA headquarters in St. Paul, Corrigan is relaxed and confident, eager to talk about her initiative to clean up polluted waterways across the state. When asked about her 1998 statement to Cottage Grove residents that the landfill water flowing into the Mississippi was clean, Corrigan says her words still stand.
“The statements I made in 1998 I would have made today. I understand that the science has changed again and has evolved, and so we know more,” says Corrigan. “But that’s the nature of our business. As time goes by we learn more, and so we’re able to respond in a different way.”
In 1998, when Corrigan was still at 3M, the company was involved in extensive testing about its perfluorinated chemicals. Sheryl Corrigan says she knew the testing was underway.
“The information I had was information that the public had. 3M has been very open about what was on the books and what folks had access to. I had no more information than the public at any given time about what was the occurrence of any particular chemical at any particular place,” says Corrigan.
Corrigan was asked whether the residents of Cottage Grove should have known there were perfluorinated chemicals in the blood supply, even as they were asking questions of 3M and the MPCA.
“The information that was available was publicly available,” Corrigan responded. “I think it would be a misstatement to say that folks at 3M were in any way, shape or form keeping information from people. That wasn’t the corporate policy and that wasn’t the corporate practice.”
Corrigan’s appearance before the Cottage Grove City Council was in 1998. It would be two years later, in 2000, when perfluorinated chemicals would become front page news.
Michael Santoro, 3M’s director of health safety, was asked about Corrigan’s answers — whether 3M knew in 1998 about the potential threat posed by PFCs at the plant, or near the landfill, and whether Corrigan should have said something to Cottage Grove residents at that city council meeting.
“Well, that’s a good question,” Santoro responded. “I think at that time the focus of the discussion — and I obviously can’t speak for her — was more about what I call conventional types of pollutants. The understanding we had of site operations with any onsite landfill led us to say there were no offsite concerns associated with the waste materials that were talked about at that time.”
“We knew, I think, that we had disposed of some materials there,” said Santoro. “I don’t think there’s a good an understanding as we have today from the standpoint of the nature of persistence, and the fact that they may have an impact.”
Like any major manufacturer in Minnesota, 3M has many routine dealings with the MPCA.
At the 2002 news conference announcing her appointment, Corrigan said she “knew of no current issues involving 3M and the MPCA that would complicate her new role.”
3M’s Michael Santoro backs up Corrigan’s statement.
“Yes, I think so. Keep in mind that our relationship with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, I think, over the years, has been very positive. If there are issues, we deal with them upfront and solve any problems that we might have. So I’d say that’s an accurate statement,” said Santoro.
Corrigan’s appointment met no opposition in the state Senate. At her confirmation hearing, no senator asked whether her previous employment at one of Minnesota’s largest manufacturers might pose a potential conflict of interest.
Corrigan was confirmed in April 2004, after serving in the job for more than a year. The DFL chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources committee, John Marty, says she was judged more on her short track record at the MPCA than her private sector work.
“My initial reaction would have been, ‘She’s a decent person.’ I still believe that. But I’d prefer to have the appointees who are head of the Pollution Control Agency as people who are going to be strong advocates for protecting the environment,” Marty says.
“Somebody coming from industry — that’s not saying they can’t be that — but the initial reaction was, I’m not as likely to expect her to be as aggressive as some environmentalist might be,” Marty says. “But again, it’s the governor’s appointment, and I guess I didn’t think we were going to get anything better than we got with her.”
MPCA SCIENTIST CLASHES WITH HER BOSS
Fardin Oliaei, the MPCA scientist who wanted to study perfluorinated chemicals, only got one chance to do so after Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan took office in 2003.
On a cold November day in 2004, Oliaei and her colleague Joe Julik are taking core samples from a closed public landfill in Washington County, in Lake Elmo. It is one of several locations in the area where 3M disposed waste from its perfluorochemical operations in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Oliaei and Julik, a hydrogeologist, are pounding soil samples from collection tubes. The landfill looks like any grass-covered field. There are homes nearby, and tracks made by deer and other wildlife. But a sharp chemical smell gives away the field’s history. Oliaei has selected this landfill because she knows the soil is likely still contaminated with perfluorinated chemicals.
“This is a soil sample that we are getting to get some idea about the concentration of PFOS/PFOA in this soil sample, going down to groundwater level,” she explains.
Oliaei’s samples are taken in intervals down to 25 feet.
“It tells us about the traveling of these contaminants through the soil, down to the aquifer,” says Oliaei.
A few months earlier, the Minnesota Department of Health found wells at seven nearby homes contaminated with PFOA, but the water was not unsafe to drink.
Joe Julik says old landfills can leak.
“Unfortunately, where they sited a lot of these was in old gravel pits, because there was a hole there. Well, gravel pits have sandy bottoms and so they leak,” Julik says. “This is an example of one that had a sandy bottom. So the leachates that formed from the water moving through the waste leach down into the groundwater and cause the problem.”
Julik points in the direction the groundwater flows — toward nearby homes, and ultimately to the Mississippi River.
Oliaei would like to follow this underground trail. As the coordinator of the MPCA’s program on emerging contaminants, Oliaei had proposed a series of tests to measure how perfluorinated chemicals are moving from 3M sites out into the environment.
In 2003, she requested $140,000 for PFOA and PFOS research, combined with unrelated studies into flame-retardants and pharmaceuticals. When her MPCA boss rejected that proposal, she lowered her request to $14,000. That, too, was rejected.
In 2004, she submitted five more research proposals to her supervisors. All five were rejected.
Oliaei says she took her case directly to Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan.
“I went to her with a copy of my proposals for fiscal 2004, and I told her, ‘I know your priorities, according to what you say, are water issues,'” Oliaei recalls. “‘These are emerging contaminants, regardless of where they are coming from. Ultimately they are going to go in the water and accumulate about the aquatic life, and go back again to humans and so forth. And there is a lot of information about toxicity, and for us as a Pollution Control Agency, we should do the monitoring of this stuff.'”
“And she told me that she would look at those and let me know later, which she never got back to me,” says Oliaei. “But in her conversation with me she said, ‘Fardin, what do you want me to do?’ And I said, ‘I want you to support this project.’ And she told me, ‘Let me tell you — if you like to do scientific work, this agency is not a scientific institution. I strongly suggest you go somewhere else to do science work.’ And that was my first, maybe, and last conversation with her.”
“Dr. Oliaei has done some great work on occurrence. But that’s as far as we want to go,” responds Corrigan. “Now we need to start looking to the involved agencies around how to fix it. I’m not sure that research scientists belong at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.”
Oliaei’s relationship with the agency has been strained in recent years. She’s brought two discrimination complaints against the agency. The first one, in 1999, resulted in a promotion she had been seeking. The second one, filed in 2004, is still pending.
No one is disputing Oliaei’s skill as a scientist. A principal engineer with the MPCA confirmed to us that Oliaei is respected by her peers and is considered a very good scientist. An expert in toxic reductions at the federal Environmental Protection Agency office in Chicago described her as a “cutting edge scientist” who pushes hard for her work.
But Oliaei couldn’t persuade Corrigan that her research should be funded.
Corrigan disputes that she and Oliaei ever discussed perfluorochemicals specifically. She acknowledges they may be a problem, but she says doing the research is not the MPCA’s job — it’s the Environmental Protection Agency.
“There are a plethora of challenges for us here at the agency on what’s the most important thing to look at. And while fluorochemicals certainly are at the front burner for EPA, that’s because EPA’s been charged with determining the risk around these. So they’re madly working to determine how these chemicals work in the environment,” says Corrigan.
“We have some problems that are right in front of us. Right in front of us,” Corrigan says. “There are fine particles in our air today that we need to deal with. There’s phosphorus in our waters today that we need to deal with. And there might very well be fluorochemicals in our waters that we need to deal with. But until we have the right science to move forward on, it doesn’t make sense.”
The EPA has opened a major investigation of perfluorinated chemicals. But not in Minnesota.
“We’re not specifically looking into the facilities in Minnesota,” says Lawrence Libelo, a senior environmental engineer with the EPA. “That’s being done by the state folks. We’re relying on them to do the work in their area.”
The EPA isn’t looking for the chemicals in Minnesota, because they’re not made here anymore. The EPA investigation is focused on Alabama and West Virginia, two places where PFOA continues to be used.
Mary Dominiak coordinates the EPA’s investigation of fluorochemicals. She says the most important question the EPA still can’t answer is — what threat do the chemicals pose to human health?
“The jury is still out on that one,” says Dominiak. “We’re looking at trying to assemble the information that will let us know whether we’re dealing with a risk now, or one that might develop over time, if these chemicals would continue to be manufactured and used in the quantities that they were in the past.”