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State suit against 3M gets judge’s go-ahead

ST. PAUL — A Hennepin County judge has removed a legal obstacle to a state lawsuit against the 3M Corp., clearing the way for potentially one of the biggest environmental actions in state history.

District Judge John McShane on Friday rejected 3M’s argument that a law firm hired by the state in its 2010 suit over pollution from PFCs, or perfluorochemicals, should not be allowed to work on the case that centers on Minnesota’s Washington County in the eastern Twin Cities metro area.

McShane ruled that the state could hire the firm and the suit could continue. The lawsuit had been stalled since 2012.

“We hope to get back to this right away,” Alan Gilbert, solicitor general of the state Attorney General’s office, said last Monday. “I call this an unnecessary delay. This was a waste of public money.”

When the state sued 3M, one of the firms advising the attorney general’s office was San Francisco-based Covington & Burling, which had worked with the state on environmental matters for about 20 years.

But 3M argued Covington should not be allowed to help sue the company, claiming the firm was switching sides after representing 3M earlier in other legal affairs.

McShane ruled Covington’s earlier involvement with 3M shouldn’t disqualify it.

A 3M lawyer said last week that the judge sided with the state because 3M waited too long to protest the law firm’s hiring.

Bill Brewer, partner with Bickel and Brewer, said 3M waited 16 months before it filed a motion in April 2012 seeking to disqualify Covington.

Nevertheless, Brewer said, the judge agreed Covington violated a regulation involving conflicts of interest because it had represented 3M in earlier legal matters.

Gilbert, the solicitor general, wouldn’t predict how long it might take the state to complete the suit against 3M, or how much the damages might be.

But lawsuits involving similar chemicals have resulted in multimillion-dollar rulings elsewhere.

In 2005, related chemicals in groundwater in Ohio resulted in a $300 million settlement against DuPont to clean up the water and to monitor health effects on people in the area. In October, an Ohio woman was awarded $1.6 million from DuPont after a judge found that the chemicals contributed to her kidney cancer.

The state is not charging that PFCs harmed anyone, but that the chemicals have “potentially harmful effects” on “human health and the environment.”

Gilbert said the state has been involved in other environmental damage lawsuits, but “nothing of this magnitude.” The PFC-tainted water has been found in four aquifers, over a 100-square mile area that is home to about 65,000 Minnesotans.

3M began making PFCs in the 1940s for use in manufacturing Teflon products, fire extinguishers and stain repellent. The company legally disposed of PFCs into outdoor dump sites in Washington County until the 1970s.

But those PFCs leaked into groundwater. In 2004, traces were found in drinking water in Oakdale and Lake Elmo. The state Pollution Control Agency investigated and also found PFC contamination in the water of Woodbury, Cottage Grove and Hastings.

3M stopped making the chemicals in 2000. Since then, traces have been found in humans and animals around the world, including in fish in the Mississippi River.

Experts disagree about the potential harm to people.

Some studies show that mega-doses of PFCs can cause tumors and thyroid and liver problems in rats. The Minnesota attorney general’s office provided more recent studies showing that PFCs may have an effect on early menopause in women and the level of childhood immunity to certain diseases.

But 3M says it has monitored its chemical plant workers for 30 years and found no ill effects. The company says the amounts found in the groundwater — measured in parts per billion — are too small to have any effect.

3M’s claims have been bolstered by the state Health Department.

It surveyed people in Washington County who had been drinking that water for decades and found no health impact. In a 2007 class-action lawsuit in the county, dozens of residents sought damages for harm done by the water, but a jury found the chemicals caused no damage.

Recently, the levels of PFCs in Washington County residents have been dropping, according to the state Pollution Control Agency.

But PFC pollution is still an important issue, said Gilbert.

“It does not degrade completely in the environment,” he said. “It affects natural resources for a long time.”

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