Judge OKs State To Move Forward On 3M Pollution Lawsuit
One of the largest environmental and human health lawsuits in Minnesota history is set to continue. On Friday, a Hennepin County judge rejected a request from 3M to disqualify the state’s long-standing environmental law firm.
The suit, which opened in 2010, had been stalled since March 2012.
For 20 years, San Francisco-based law firm Covington & Burling has been an advising partner for the attorney general’s office. 3M argued that Covington was violating legal and ethical obligations to 3M after representing the company during a period starting in 1998.
District Judge John McShane ultimately agreed with 3M’s fundamental position but sided with the state because 3M waited 16 months before it filed a motion to remove Covington from the case.
“In our view, they’ve dodged everything and successfully delayed the prosecution of this case for four years,” said Alan Gilbert, solicitor general of the Attorney General’s office. “I think it’s really important for people to realize what caused the delay.”
William Brewer III, one of the attorneys representing 3M, said in a statement that he and 3M’s counsel “respectfully disagree” with the judge’s order.
The State of Minnesota first opened a suit against the Maplewood-based manufacturer over concerns of pollution from PFCs, or perfluorochemicals, which are found in 3M’s various coatings, stain repellents (like Scotchgard), and fire extinguishers.
3M began producing commercial products containing PFCs in the 1950s and continued to do so until 2000. Through the 1970s, the chemicals were disposed of legally at sites throughout Minnesota.
“A lot of it was dumped into landfills in Washington County and different waters as well, including the Mississippi River,” said Gilbert.
As the spread of PFC-tainted waters is still being determined, more than 65,000 Minnesotans could be affected, as well as others outside of the state. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has already determined that traces of PFCs have leaked into groundwater found in Woodbury, Hastings, Cottage Grove, Lake Elmo and Oakdale.
Scientists have found probable links behind PFC exposure causing kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
“We’re developing evidence in all different ways on this, but those health studies are really important as well as studies relating to harm to the environment,” Gilbert said.
In 2005, similar chemicals were found in groundwater in Ohio. A lawsuit was prompted against the responsible company, DuPont, and resulted in a $300 million settlement.
3M has called out a study by the Minnesota Department of Health, which stated it “cannot conclude whether drinking or breathing PFCs in water or air or contact with PFC-containing wastes in the past harmed people’s health” in Washington, Dakota or Ramsey counties. The report also noted, “simply finding a chemical in people’s bodies does not mean the chemical will harm health.”
Expounding that point, Brewer added in a statement, “The State of Minnesota has not been able to identify a single person who has suffered an adverse health effect as a result of exposure to these compounds.”
3M said it has not observed adverse health affects in more than 30 years of medical surveillance of its employees exposed to PFCs. “This is important since the level of exposure in the general population is much lower than that of production employees who worked directly with these materials,” Carol Ley, 3M’s corporate medical director, said in a statement.
Gilbert said the state hopes to be litigating the case as soon as possible. How long it may take to reach the end result, though, he cannot predict.