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State v. 3M trial halts before it begins

Cottage Grove houses one of the east metro's 3M sites. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia

MINNEAPOLIS — District Judge Kevin S. Burke announced there would be no trial for its opening day of the trial seven years in the making between the state of Minnesota and manufacturing behemoth 3M Corp, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

An announcement was planned for 3:30 p.m. 

Jury selection was set to begin Feb. 20 in a Hennepin County courtroom, with opening statements to follow.

State Attorney General Lori Swanson filed the complaint just before year end in 2010.

Beginning in the 1950s, 3M began dumping perfluorochemicals in Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Oakdale and Lake Elmo. The company has stated that at the time they did not know the chemicals were harmful.

The PFCs migrated from the unlined dumping pits across a 100-square-mile plume in the east metro and into groundwater and Mississippi River.

Swanson claims in the complaint that by the 1960s, 3M knew dumping PFCs would be harmful for health and pollute the area, as well as claiming the company covered up the fact that they knew and did nothing about it.

The state is seeking $5 billion in damages from 3M for dumping the PFCs that have leached into the groundwater across the east metro, making it the state's largest-ever environmental lawsuit.

Health fears

The reduction of health-based values last May renewed fears in the east metro area that 3M's chemicals may have caused higher instances of cancer and other adverse health effects.

The Environmental Protection Agency's health-based values state that PFC levels should be below 70 parts per trillion to be safe. In May 2017, the Minnesota Department of Health lowered their own health-based values to 35 ppt PFOA and 27 ppt for PFOS.

When the decrease triggered a watering ban and the city had to increase water filtration, many residents worried their health had been at risk of cancer or other health issues when the values were higher.

New court documents filed in November renewed fears once again.

The documents included a study from Swanson's expert witness, David Sunding of University of California-Berkeley, which points to a higher incidence of infertility in women and lower birth weights in Oakdale. After the city switched to non-contaminated water in 2006, low birth rates declined, according to Sunding's study.

Earlier this month, the Minnesota Department of Health completed an analysis of cancer as well as low birth weight and premature birth rates in the east metro. The MDH found that rates were not outside the norm for the area.

3M requested and was granted a one-week delay in the trial based on the new analysis.

Other studies in the past have found that PFC exposure may increase the risk of thyroid disease, lowered immune responses, liver and kidney function and testicular cancer.

The suit does not focus solely on health, however, but Swanson also argues that 3M's dumping negatively impacted the environment, documents related to PFCs were destroyed to keep cover up information and that keeping facts from the scientific community kept important studies on PFC effects from being completed earlier.

Cost and damages

3M has already paid millions for pollution remediation, including $5 million for a treatment plant in Oakdale in 2005, along with ongoing costs of operation there.

Cottage Grove, after the health-based values were lowered by the MDH, also needs a water treatment facility. Early estimates were about $10 million, but the price is now upward of $50 million to buy land for and construct two water treatment plants.

The company is fighting against paying for treatment facilities because 3M says there is a chance the pollution was from where firefighting foam may have left traces of PFC contamination near Highway 61.

The city is also set to be reimbursed for the $2 million spent on the temporary filtration systems constructed on two wells last summer.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has agreed to reimburse the city for remediation and filtration measures, whether or not 3M is reimbursing the state.

They signed a consent order to do so in 2007.

Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey has said in the past that if the state wins he hopes some of the $5 billion at stake in the lawsuit will come to his city for water treatment costs.