Analies Dyjak | Policy Analyst
This past Tuesday, February 20th, 2018, a lengthy lawsuit of eight-years ended in an $850 million settlement in favor of the state of Minnesota.
If you’re unfamiliar with the water crisis in Minnesota, here’s a quick recap:
In 2010 the state of Minnesota filed suit against 3M, a manufacturing company based out of Maplewood, Minnesota. The lawsuit came about because of allegations that 3M had been knowingly and improperly disposing of perfluorinated chemicals (PFC’s) such as perflurooctanoic acid (PFOA), and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) for decades. This probably sounds familiar to GenX contamination in North Carolina. 3M publicly stated their phase-out of PFC-like compounds in 2000. In 2004, 67,000 households in communities such as Lake Elmo, Oakdale, Woodbury and Cottage Grove had traces of PFC’s in their drinking water. In 2010, the state of Minnesota initially asked for $5 billion from 3M for natural resource and environmental degradation. In a last ditch effort to avoid trial, the state of Minnesota was granted an $850 million settlement on behalf of 3M. 3M claims that the settlement doesn’t make them guilty of poisoning thousands of people in Minnesota, but rather to show their commitment to environmental stewardship.
How Did The PFC Contamination Get Into Drinking Water?
3M had been disposing of PFC’s in their privately owned landfills as well as certain public landfills in Washington County since the 1950’s. It’s uncertain if 3M disclosed to the public landfills that PFOA’s and PFOS’s would be a part of their industrial hazardous waste permits. Additionally, cap technology in the in the 1950’s and up to the 1970’s was not nearly as advanced as it is today. Once the chemicals were disposed of in the landfill, over time they leached through the lining and into surrounding groundwater.
Health Effects of PFC’s, PFOA’s and PFOS’s
Health experts in Minnesota have seen higher rates of cancers, leukemia, premature births and lower fertility rates in suburbs near 3M manufacturing. This is a pretty constant trend when looking into long term exposure of perfluorinated chemicals. A University of California, Berkeley professor reported a 30% increase in low birth-weights and premature births between the years of 2001 and 2006 in Oakdale, a suburb of a 3M manufacturing plant.
Where Will the Money GO?
According to the Minnesota Attorney General, the settlement will be used to fund projects involving drinking water and water sustainability (whatever that means). $850 million may seem like a substantial peace offering, but the state came to the conclusive amount of $5 billion for a reason. This was the well-researched amount of money that state experts determined for damage done by 3M. Does this mean that the drinking water problem is completely fixed? No. It’s not guaranteed that every household will receive compensation and funding for a proper filtration system. The same UC Berkeley professor estimated the economic cost of the pollution; $1.5 billion in natural resource damages, $830 million in financial damages to existing households, and $309 million for people moving to the area by 2050. So although the settlement is significant, it won’t nearly be able to remediate all existing damages.
The settlement in Minnesota is a win for the environmental and the millions of individuals affected by 3M. There is still uncertainty regarding how the settlement money will be allocated, and which projects will be prioritized.
Brief History of 3M in Minnesota
3M initially began producing PFC’s in the 1950’s. Of course commercial-scale production of PFC’s were almost completely unregulated during this time. The Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act weren’t codified until 1970. Knowledge of PFC-like contaminants was minimal and economic pressure was high.
Prior to any knowledge of PFC’s, 3M focused its attention on remediation efforts to volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). VOC’s were first found in groundwater in Washington County in 1966. Because of this, state permitting agencies and 3M were all aware of the hydrology of this area.
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