3M and PFC groundwater contamination in Minnesota

State files lawsuit against 3M over pollution


The state of Minnesota is taking Twin Cities industrial giant 3M to court.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday, Attorney General Lori Swanson said the company needs to pay up for contaminating the state's waters with chemicals it formerly used to make Scotchgard and other stain resistant products, paints and fire-fighting foam.

But 3M says it's doing all it can to clean up the so-called perfluorochemicals, known as PFCs, and notes that their effect on the environment is still being debated.

3M disposed of industrial waste from its PFC operations over the course of 50 years. The company halted processes involving two of the chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, in 2002.

The PFCs were buried in several east metro landfills, including one at 3M's Cottage Grove plant on the Mississippi River. There, it piped the chemicals into a stream that flowed into the Mississippi River. The suit claims the release of 3M chemicals violated state law.

Attorney General Lori Swanson says you can still see the consequences of those actions today. They range from restrictions that limit how Washington County communities can build drinking wells to a health advisory on eating fish.

Swanson says the 3M chemicals polluted more than 100 square miles of groundwater, and all of the resulting problems carry a cost.

Washington County landfill
A closed landfill in Washington County, where 3M disposed of various types of chemicals for years.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

"What we're pursuing is a claim for damages for the injury caused by 3M to the state's natural resources," she said. "Basically saying the company created a mess, and we want you to do right."

Swanson says 3M should have known that the PFCs would likely leak into waterways and groundwater, just as it should have known the potential harm those chemicals would have on people's health and the environment.

Over the past six months, Swanson's office and 3M had been trying to reach a settlement out of court, but those formal negotiations failed. A moratorium on legal action expired Thursday.

While similar lawsuits have accused Minnesota companies of damaging the state's natural resources, Swanson says this one is unique.

"What is a little different about this one is simply the magnitude of the problem, the 100-square-mile area, and the many years through which the disposal occurred," she said.

For all those reasons, Swanson says she expects a larger sum from 3M. The lawsuit doesn't specify an amount, and Swanson says it will be determined through litigation.

The company acknowledged in an annual report that it set aside $117 million for potential environmental liability stemming from PFCs.

But 3M spokesman Bill Nelson says that figure is no indication of how much it would be willing to pay the state of Minnesota. He says his company has complied with every requirement issued in a consent order it entered with the state in 2007, involving cleanup efforts and prevention of future contamination.

"We just simply cannot forget the physical work that 3M is doing at its former disposal sites, in addition to the $8 million that 3M has provided the state for its work at the former Washington County landfill," he said.

Nelson says 3M legally disposed of the PFCs, and received all of the necessary permits from the state and federal government. He says the mere presence of chemicals in the environment doesn't necessarily mean a health risk, or that damages can be recovered.

3M and the state seem miles apart, even on the effect of PFCs.

"Are PFCs in the east metro a risk to the water supplies and to the environment? The answer is no," said Nelson.

Nelson also says the scope of the contamination outlined in the lawsuit is an "over-generalization."

Brad Moore was the commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, who helped broker the consent order with 3M three years ago. He says the lawsuit doesn't come as a surprise, because the order did not release 3M from liability.

As the case moves forward, Moore says the sheer task of putting a dollar figure on damages to natural resources will be tricky.

"Typically, you'll see these kind of cases go on for a long time because of the difficulty in determining what exactly that damage is," said Moore. "If someone's house is burned down, you can have an evaluator come out and they'll say, 'This is what it'll cost to build a new house.' Well, when you have contamination in say, millions of gallons in groundwater, it's much harder to determine what the real cost is there."

Moore says the ongoing scientific debate over PFCs -- and whether they're hazardous -- will make the case even more complicated.