3M found not liable for home value loss

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 18, 2009 - 12:11 AM

A jury denied claims by homeowners that chemicals that contaminated water damaged property values.

A Washington County jury awarded no damages Wednesday to three east metro homeowners who claimed that their property had been devalued by water contamination from 3M Co. chemicals.

The unanimous verdict in 3M's favor, after only a few hours of deliberations, was an abrupt end to a lawsuit that began more than four years ago and at one time was on the verge of becoming one of the larger environmental damage cases in state history.

But by the time closing arguments were finished Monday, the case was no longer about health threats to thousands of area residents, but whether 3M's actions over nearly five decades had eroded the value of three homes.

3M Co. spokesman Bill Nelson said the company was pleased that the jury of six women and three men evidently agreed that the company had behaved within the law and by what was known scientifically about perfluorochemicals, which 3M manufactured from the mid-1950s until early this decade and dumped in four east metro sites until the mid-1970s.

The company has spent nearly $15 million in cleanups and on water-supply alternatives in Woodbury, Lake Elmo and Cottage Grove, and is involved in continuing work that could cost another $50 million.

"The company remains committed to its cleanup at the four sites in Washington County," Nelson said, adding that it has also instituted reviews of the environmental impacts of chemicals in their development, manufacture, sale and disposal.

Rhon Jones, one of several attorneys for the plaintiffs, declined to comment other than to say in an e-mail that he was disappointed for his clients, and that they had not decided whether to appeal.

The homeowners said their property values declined by 15 percent because of contamination of their wells and were seeking more than $200,000 from 3M, in addition to other damages.

The chemicals were used in hundreds of products that resist water and grease, including Scotchgard, firefighting foam, computer chips and nonstick cookware. 3M stopped production early this decade.

At first the lawsuit mirrored a 2002 case from West Virginia and Ohio, in which about 80,000 residents claimed they'd been harmed by drinking water contaminated by PFOA, a chemical 3M had sold to the DuPont Co., which used it in some consumer products. PFOA was among the substances detected in Lake Elmo and Oakdale wells. The West Virginia case was settled out of court, and DuPont agreed to pay for clean drinking water, community health evaluations and, if necessary, medical monitoring of individuals.

The cost to DuPont could exceed $300 million.

In Minnesota, 3M made the chemicals at its Cottage Grove plant from about 1950 to 2002 and disposed of waste there and at dumps in Lake Elmo, Oakdale and Woodbury from 1956 to 1975. Groundwater beneath each site has been tainted, and has spread to surrounding areas.

In many cases the concentrations are at trace levels that health experts consider safe. In others, 3M paid for residents, including more than 200 Lake Elmo homeowners who had private wells, to be hooked up to city water.

The plaintiffs include one couple who received city water from Oakdale and two individuals who had private wells in Lake Elmo. Tests in 2005 showed their water was contaminated. All were given bottled water or filters and were later connected to Lake Elmo's expanded water system.

Washington County District Judge Mary Hannon denied the plaintiffs' motion in 2007 to certify the Minnesota case as a class-action proceeding involving many more residents. In December, she further blocked them from claiming they had suffered health impacts.

That essentially left the case a question of property values. Technically it was also about whether 3M had committed trespass under Minnesota law, either by knowing the chemicals dumped were likely to spread through groundwater, or by intending to have them invade the plaintiffs' properties.

Lake Elmo Mayor Dean Johnston, who has campaigned several times since the contamination was first detected, said 3M had a "very aggressive, constructive, community-minded response" to the discoveries and mitigation plans, including paying $4.3 million to expand the city water system to get several hundred residents off private wells.

However, it remains a "high anxiety issue" and was the focus of his campaign last fall. He said he still hears from real estate agents that some would-be home buyers are steering clear of the area. Several dozen homes in the city remain on private wells and are too far apart to be connected to the system economically.

Johnston added that Wednesday's resolution in the 3M suit doesn't change any of that.

"It was a narrow issue," he said. "Property value is a completely different issue from health and safety."

Staff writer Tom Meersman contributed to this report. Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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