The 3M Co. offered to pay the $626,000 tab to continue a biomonitoring program to measure PFC levels in residents of three east-metro communities, but the offer was rejected because of the state’s ongoing lawsuit against the company.
An advisory panel of experts with the Minnesota Department of Health had recommended continuing the five-year-old program — due to expire this June — for another two years in Lake Elmo, Cottage Grove and Oakdale, but money for it had not been included in Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget.
The testing showed that PFC levels declined since testing started in 2008 until 2010 but that they were still above the U.S. average. For that reason, the advisory panel recommended that the biomonitoring program be extended to see if that downward trend continues. It also recommended that the sampling size be enlarged to get a clearer picture of how PFC levels compare among people, depending on how long they lived in those communities, and what steps appear to reduce PFC exposure.
Bills introduced by state Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, and state Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury, provide the money to do just that. Their legislation was folded into larger spending bills that were approved in the House and Senate last month and that are being reconciled this week in a conference committee as the Legislature heads to the final day on Monday.
PFCs, perfluorochemicals, are a family of compounds once made by 3M and used in an array of products. 3M stopped making PFCs in 2002, but other companies still use the compounds in products like carpet stain protectors and microwave popcorn bags.
In 2004, PFCs were found in Washington County groundwater and drinking water after being legally disposed of at four sites over several decades.
The company, while steadfastly asserting that PFCs pose no harm to people, estimates it nonetheless has spent more than $100 million on cleanup efforts. But in late 2010, the state sued the company, in part, over damages and potential future damages to the state’s environment.
When it was reported earlier this year that the PFC biomonitoring funding had been cut, 3M sent a letter on March 7 to James Koppel, deputy health commissioner, offering to fund “an independent follow-up biomonitoring study.” The company, eager to affirm the effects of its cleanup investment, also requested a meeting to discuss that support.
Both offers were turned down.
Top Health Department officials made the decision because of the pending lawsuit, said Jean Johnson, director of the biomonitoring program. “They didn’t want to give the appearance of interfering with the litigation,” she said.
“I think it would be a conflict of interest,” added Ward.
Stakes in the 3M lawsuit are high. Documents show that the Covington & Burling law firm, which took the case for free on the state’s behalf, made provisions to collect 15 to 20 percent of any settlement from 3M exceeding $150 million. The law firm is now being sued by 3M, a former client, which has sidetracked the case.
Both Johnson and Ward said continuing — and expanding — the biomonitoring effort is important to east metro residents anxious over PFC levels in their water. The third round of testing that would continue in 2014 and 2015 likely will affirm the downward trend, Johnson told a House committee. “Our expectation is that PFC levels will decline to near-background levels that we see in the U.S. population,” she said.
In 2008, when monitoring began, the Health Department identified three types of PFCs in the blood of study participants: PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS. The highest levels were found in older people, long-term residents and men. By 2010, levels of all three types of PFCs had fallen between 13 and 26 percent.
The effects of PFCs on people are a matter of intense scientific debate. The Health Department has not taken the next step of determining a link between the data and health effects on people, said Jessica Nelson, coordinator of the state’s biomonitoring program. But the data are still important to collect as any effects PFCs have on human health become better understood.
“The good news,” she said, “is that PFC blood levels are coming down.”