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State settles for $850M in 3M lawsuit

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson speaks at a news conference Feb. 20. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia

MINNEAPOLIS — Just before the trial between Minnesota and 3M Corp was set to start more than seven years after its original filing, the parties agreed to a $850 million settlement.

The settlement is less than a fifth of the $5 billion State Attorney General Lori Swanson was asking at the outset of the trial.

In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Swanson said the settlement money will be used to fund drinking water quality and water sustainability in the east metro. She said it could be used for individual homeowners’ wells, municipal wells and possibly water treatment facilities.

Swanson filed the original lawsuit in December 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 argued 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.

“I call it the Pottery Barn rule: If you break something you fix it, and here the idea is the payment will be used to remedy the drinking problems with these chemicals,” Swanson said in a news conference Feb. 20.

Swanson said there are 650 homeowners in the east metro whose private wells have been affected by PFCs, in addition to several municipal and public wells containing the chemical.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have been named the trustees of the settlement money. Swanson said there will be a working group likely comprised of involved municipalities and agencies to determine where the money would be best spent.

There is no timeline at this time for when this work will begin, but Swanson said it could come together quickly.

“The state would want to move as expeditiously as possible, and the intent is to fix the problem,” Swanson said.

After weeks-long negotiations between the state and 3M that Swanson said ended around 5 a.m. Tuesday morning, 3M has agreed to pay the $850 million to the state by March 7.

Water treatment

After the Minnesota Department of Health lowered the state’s health-based values for perfluorochemicals in drinking water last May, Cottage Grove had to temporarily shut down some wells and add temporary treatment facilities that cost around $2 million.

To keep municipal drinking water below the health-based values long-term, the city will have to construct one or more water treatment facilities.

City Administrator Charlene Stevens said they currently estimate planning, design and construction will cost around $50 million.

“We had temporary treatment, but weren’t as able to move forward with long-term (until the trial ended),” Stevens said after the settlement was announced. “It’s certainly a positive, in that we feel we can more clearly move forward in terms of a long-term solution.”

The city has also considered constructing a regional treatment facility with Woodbury near the border between the two cities.

Swanson said some of the settlement money could “potentially” be earmarked for Cottage Grove to build those facilities.

“That money is going to go first and foremost into the east metropolitan area, so those affected by the PFC chemicals, that will be the first focus,” she said. “That’ll include both municipal drinking water and will include individual homeowners who get their water from their own private wells. That’s going be the laser-beam focus for where that money is going to go.”

Health Department

The trial set to start Feb. 20 was pushed back one week after the Minnesota Department of Health released an analysis finding that cancer and low birth weight or premature birth rates were no higher than the rest of the metro. The analysis was in opposition to what Swanson’s expert witness, David Sunding of the University of California-Berkeley, had found.

In a study, Sunding found 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.

Health fears mounted in the east metro once again after the study was added to court documents last November.

The opposing analysis the MDH released Feb. 7 “did not help the case at all,” Swanson said during the press conference.

“I’m going to have more to say about that later, but I am very troubled by what the health department did in this case, springing this kind of issue forward on the eve of trial,” Swanson said.