While Woodbury and Oakdale opt out, Lake Elmo signs on to try to recover costs related to PFCs.
A lawsuit filed in December by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson against 3M Co. over pollution damages in the east metro won't be heard by a jury until at least 2013, and just one affected city has opted to join the legal action.
So far, only Lake Elmo -- which has spent millions to revamp its municipal water system after pollutants were discovered -- has signed on as an intervenor. In civil cases, parties not directly involved in the litigation that assert they have a stake in a lawsuit's outcome, can join in as an intervenor.
"We are ground zero for contamination," said Bruce Messelt, Lake Elmo's city administrator.
Swanson filed the lawsuit against 3M after negotiations with the company broke down. The state had sought to recover the cost of damages to the state's environment from disposal of a family of chemicals called perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, at sites in Washington County and into the Mississippi River over several decades.
A written agreement between the state and 3M set a deadline of last Dec. 30 to reach a settlement. After six months of talks, no deal was reached, so the state went to court.
Woodbury and Oakdale have opted not to join the action as intervenors, city officials said.
In Cottage Grove, where 3M has a large manufacturing plant employing more than 700, the City Council has discussed the issue at least once in a closed session as allowed by state law to discuss legal matters but has not made a decision, said Ryan Schroeder, city administrator. It's likely to be discussed again soon, he said.
Lake Elmo was the site of the former Washington County Landfill, a 40-acre site near Lake Jane on Jamaca Avenue that took municipal and industrial solid waste, much of it from 3M, between 1969 and 1975.
Like the state, Lake Elmo and 3M had been in talks about repaying damages estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, Messelt said. The discovery of PFCs was a major disruption to the city's water system. Residents who had their own private wells in the rural part of the city could no longer use them, forcing the city to expand its municipal system to get water to isolated areas.
"But for the contamination, we wouldn't be doing that," he said.
With the high costs of that infrastructure, and few customers, it's been a money-losing proposition, he said. By joining the suit, the city hopes to recoup costs that have not been reimbursed by 3M.
Lake Elmo is still feeling the effects of PFC pollution. Water is constantly being monitored, and some residents use powerful granular-activated carbon water filters to make sure their water is clean -- or they drink bottled water.
Messelt described the relationship between the city and 3M as "varied and complex." The company is an active community supporter and has dealt with the city in good faith on matters related to the contamination. The lawsuit, though, is the one mechanism for getting a reasonable result.
Oakdale Mayor Carmen Sarrack, on the other hand, sees no justification for the state's lawsuit.
"3M has done everything for the city of Oakdale that it was asked to do," he said. "They've cleaned up the dump site, built new wells for us and built a new filtering system for the municipal water system. They've done everything."
Like Lake Elmo, Oakdale is home to many 3M workers, who have only a short commute to the company headquarters in nearby Maplewood. And many companies in Oakdale have ties to 3M.
"Now we have filtered water -- we have the cleanest water in the state of Minnesota," Sarrack said. "If you buy bottled water, it doesn't taste as good as Oakdale's."
The 3M Oakdale dump site, located along Hwy. 5 west of Interstate 694, was used in the late 1940s and 1950s to bury waste and burn combustible materials. The company has acknowledged that PFCs were disposed there. Soil there has been replaced and sodded over, Sarrack said. Most of the work is done.
Meanwhile, work is ongoing at other sites.
In the southern part of Woodbury, near its border with Cottage Grove, 3M used three sites to dispose of wastes from its St. Paul and Cottage Grove plants during the 1960s.
At Cottage Grove, waste from the 3M plant was deposited in a special pit but also made its way to the Mississippi River in sludge. This summer, a cove near the plant is being dredged and the soil is being replaced with clean fill.
The court case, in the meantime, is proceeding. But, barring a settlement, the case won't be heard for another two years. Earlier this month, Hennepin County District Court Judge Margaret Daly set a jury trial for July 15, 2013.
"In these kind of complex cases, going through the courts can be a slow process," said Ben Wogsland, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office.
Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999