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3M sued over PFC 'damage'

The state of Minnesota wants 3M Company to pay for what it claims was environmental damage caused by decades of chemical pollution in Cottage Grove, Woodbury, other areas of Washington County and elsewhere.

In a state lawsuit, Attorney General Lori Swanson said the company disposed of perfluorochemical, or PFC, waste and wastewater for over 50 years and it contaminated Minnesota ground water and surface water, harming natural resources and fish. The company used PFCs to make products such as Scotchguard and other stain-resistant and fire-retardant products.

"3M polluted and damaged our waters with these chemicals," Swanson said. "The lawsuit asks the company to make right the problems caused by its contamination of our waters."

A 3M official said the company already is dealing with chemical contamination in a number of ways.

"We're puzzled by the lawsuit because PFCs in the environment are being addressed," spokesman Bill Nelson said.

The suit addresses ground contamination at four locations: 3M's Cottage Grove industrial facility; a waste disposal site along Highway 19 in Woodbury, near the Cottage Grove border; a waste disposal site in Oakdale; and the Washington County landfill in Lake Elmo. It also cites discharged water containing PFCs from the Cottage Grove facility into surface water that flowed into the Mississippi River, and contaminated groundwater in a 100-square-mile area spanning four aquifers. The suit also cites contamination of the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to south of Winona.

"PFCs from wastes disposed of by 3M are now widespread in the environment in the Twin Cities metropolitan area," the suit alleges. "PFCs released by 3M have been found in soil, groundwater, surface water, sediments and fish."

Just because PFCs are present in the environment does not create a health risk or legally recoverable environmental damage, Nelson said.

"It goes beyond just the mere fact that these molecules are in the environment," he said. "There has to be a specific harm."

The state's 30-page court complaint does not include a specific damage request. A Swanson spokesman said those cost estimates would be the subject of subsequent court filings.

The attorney general's office did highlight that 3M reported last year that it reserved $117 million for "potential environmental liability" relating to its PFC disposal.

Nelson said that is "not a promise by 3M."

"We are a publicly held company and 3M has an obligation under the law to inform shareholders of potential liabilities and to use our best effort to quantify those potential liabilities," Nelson said.

The civil suit was filed Dec. 30 in Hennepin County District Court. That date marked the end of a roughly six-month period during which 3M and the state were to attempt to reach an out-of-court settlement.

"It was a pretty wide gulf between the two sides," Nelson said.

The company has been engaged in remediation projects for a couple of years at the contamination sites.

The removal of contaminated soil from the Cottage Grove property and the Woodbury disposal site is complete. The company in the 1960s used the former dump site to dispose waste from the Cottage Grove Chemolite plant.

The company still plans to install a system to treat groundwater that is piped from the Woodbury landfill to the Cottage Grove facility.

As part of the 2007 clean-up plan, 3M was obligated to provide alternative drinking water if a community water supply or private well or water supply is found to contain PFCs at a level above government safety guidelines. The company provided bottled water to some Washington county residents.

3M has 30 days to respond formally to the complaint.

"We're very confident about our case," Nelson said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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