Originally posted on TwinCities.com by Bob Shaw on February 20, 2018.
A $5 billion water-pollution lawsuit, which pitted 3M Co. against Minnesota’s attorney general, ended on the day it was supposed to go to trial Tuesday.
In a surprise settlement, 3M agreed to give $850 million to the state for water quality programs in the east metro.
“This money is dedicated to fixing the problem,” said Attorney General Lori Swanson at a news conference in Minneapolis. “This was hard-fought litigation.”
The money will help remedy water-pollution problems of private well owners and cities — including Cottage Grove, which already spent millions on new city wells.
In a prepared statement, Gov. Mark Dayton congratulated Swanson on the settlement.
He also commented about the impact on 3M, which is headquartered in Maplewood.
“I am also mindful that this settlement comes at the expense of a great Minnesota company, 3M, whose many positive contributions to our state and our citizens greatly exceed these unfortunate circumstances.”
The settlement ended what would have been one of the biggest environmental lawsuits in U.S. history. The trial was scheduled to begin Tuesday with jury selection.
EIGHT YEARS IN THE MAKING
The 8-year-old lawsuit — filed by the attorney general and the commissioners of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — charged 3M with damaging the environment by releasing chemicals into groundwater of Washington County. 3M made the perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, in its plant in Cottage Grove for use in nonstick cookware, fire extinguishers and stain repellent.
3M says it legally disposed of the chemicals in dumpsites, a practice ending in the 1970s. In 2004, traces of the chemicals were discovered in the drinking water of 67,000 people in Lake Elmo, Oakdale, Woodbury and Cottage Grove. Traces of the chemicals have been found in people and animals around the world.
In Minnesota, the chemicals initially caused alarm, because large doses of the perfluorochemicals can cause cancer, birth defects and thyroid problems in laboratory animals. But 3M argued that no health effect to humans has ever been proven, and the parts-per-trillion amounts in groundwater couldn’t hurt people or the environment.
STATE AGENCIES AT ODDS
The state Health Department bolstered that argument.
In 2007, 2015 and 2018 it surveyed health records in the cities affected by the pollution. Despite an exposure of more than 30 years, the chemicals caused no increase in the rates of cancer and low birth-weight babies.
The department’s findings contradicted a witness for the attorney general, who was expected to testify that the pollution caused cancer and other health problems in Oakdale.
Because of the latest Health Department report released on Feb. 7, Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke granted a request by 3M to delay the trial by a week to give 3M time to incorporate the findings into its legal arguments.
The Health Department report apparently didn’t sit well with Swanson. In a statement Tuesday she said the department’s report “tried to blindside” the lawsuit on the eve of the trial.
“The swamp that was referred to in the last election is not limited to Washington,” her statement read. “We have our own problems in Minnesota with regulatory agencies that are captive to the industries that they are supposed to regulate.”
On Tuesday, the Health Department responded.
“The Attorney General’s comments are inaccurate and disappointing,” said spokesman Michael Schommer in an email. “We based our information on the best scientific information available without favor or prejudice.”
WHAT ABOUT THE WATER?
The settlement did not resolve a central question in the lawsuit: Do the traces of the pollutants make people sick?
John Banovetz, 3M’s senior vice president of research and development, addressed that question in a prepared statement: “While we have never believed there is a PFC-related health issue, this agreement allows us to move past this litigation and work together with the state on activities and projects to benefit the environment and our communities.”
3M spent more than $100 million removing the chemicals from groundwater, putting filters into city water systems and private homes, and paying other cleanup expenses.
3M stopped making two types of PFCs in 2002, even though other companies continued making them.