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State to residents: 3M cleanup cash will flow to their faucets first, fish second

Ginny Yingling, a hydrogeologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, talked to Doreen and Gary Deutsch at a April 3 public meeting at Park High School. The state will spend $700 million in 3M settlement funds to clean up contaminated water. The Deutsches get their water from a private well at their home which is about a mile from a former 3M disposal site in Woodbury. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia

COTTAGE GROVE — After nearly eight years of litigation, 3M Corp. has forked over money to fix municipal and private wells polluted by the company's chemicals in Cottage Grove, Newport, Woodbury and other east metro communities.

Now, those communities are lining up for their share of an $850 million settlement paid by the company to settle a lawsuit filed by the state in 2010. The suit accused 3M of contaminating the drinking water supply with perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, that leached from company disposal sites.

April 3, about 150 people gathered at Park High School to hear from the two state agencies who are entrusted with distributing the money — the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Bob and Eileen Weber drove from their home in Denmark Township to attend the meeting. They installed a filter in their well to mitigate nitrates from nearby farm runoff, not because of PFCs, they said. .

"Overall, we need to learn something from this," Eileen Weber said. "We're always told that certain chemicals in the environment are safe, until we're told they're not."

The settlement gives top priority to ensuring safe drinking water. Any remaining money would be spent on priority two, the restoration of the area's natural resources and for statewide water remediation. If money remains after those two priorities are met, it could pay for recreational amenities, such as boat launches or fishing piers.

There is a bit of fine print, however. Of the $720 million that will be available after attorney's fees and other costs are deducted from the settlement, $20 million is specifically allocated for protecting fish and wildlife and restoring waterways.

That didn't sit well with some.

"I don't really care that some rat in the river is going to die six months early," said a Cottage Grove woman who declined to give her name. "I think you're less concerned with human beings than with plants and animals."

Barb Naramore, assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, assured the audience that wasn't the case.

"Other than that 20 million that's set aside for priority two, everything else is reserved for priority one," she said. "The $700 million is reserved until we 'reasonably achieve what needs to be done with priority one,'" she said, quoting from the wording of the settlement order.

Kirk Koudelka, Assistant commissioner for the MPCA, said they wanted to begin implementing solutions as soon as possible.

"Our goal is not to research the issue forever and study it to death," he said.

That was encouraging to Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey. The city has been particularly hard hit by the contamination. And with several new housing developments planned in the city, he said it's imperative that they have a permanent water treatment system in place within the next two years.

"I just want to make sure it's not a money spent on planning and meetings," Bailey said. "The money has to go to have eventual resolution of the problem."

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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