The $850 million court settlement between Minnesota and 3M that ended a decadelong fight over contaminated groundwater in the east metro will go a long way toward making drinking water safe for some 150,000 residents of Washington County.

Already, there is hopeful talk about a new water treatment plant, hooking residents up to municipal water systems instead of private wells, and maybe even drawing water from the Mississippi or St. Croix Rivers instead of from contaminated aquifers. In short, for drinking water there are a lot of workarounds.

But there's not much that can be done about the underlying pollution problem, even with millions of dollars at hand. For the foreseeable future, the indestructible chemicals that 3M made and dumped for years at four sites between Woodbury and Grey Cloud Island will continue to move through groundwater into streams and lakes, contaminating wildlife up and down the food chain all the way down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

"We have to live with this, and it is forever," Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said at a hearing this week where some legislators vented their frustration at the bittersweet outcome. And they weren't the only ones.

"I wish 3M had been accountable for more than just $850 million," said Gary Paulson, a longtime resident of Lake Elmo and one of a handful of residents who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the company years ago. "But I hope they use it in the right manner and don't just throw it away."

The legal settlement reached on Feb. 20 — the day the trial was set to begin — is precisely crafted, devoting $720 million to the east metro area, first and foremost for drinking water in the affected communities: Woodbury, Oakdale, Lake Elmo, Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Afton, Newport and the townships of West Lakeland and Grey Cloud Island. The deal will also help some 500 homeowners who have private wells, a number that is likely to grow.

Once those obligations are met, with the help of a working group to advise state environmental officials, money can be spent on a larger effort to remove the chemicals, known as PFCs, through wilderness conservation, open lands, new fishing docks and wildlife habitat.

Embarrassing documents

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, who brought the suit, said attorneys for the two sides had been negotiating intensely since early January. Though she declined to provide details on why they settled, both sides had good reasons, according to legal documents and pretrial arguments.

3M has long denied that its employees and executives knew the health and environmental risks of PFCs before 2000, the year it agreed to stop making them. They said the same when the settlement was announced. "We are proud of our record of environmental stewardship, and while we do not believe there is a PFC-related public health issue, 3M will work with the State on these important projects," said John Banovetz, a 3M senior vice president.

But Swanson's attorneys were armed with thousands of documents which, they said, outlined a clear history of 3M's own research showing that the chemicals were harmful and would persist for decades in water, wildlife and people's bodies. One document, obtained just days before trial, was used by 3M itself to explain the hazards to customers, and warned that PFCs "can cause cancer." Others laid out company efforts to hide information from the public and regulators.

And Minnesota's PFC case was just one of dozens the company faces across the country.

The state, however had problems of its own. One was the possibility that a jury would agree with 3M's argument that Minnesota's statute of limitations had run out on the complaint, making the whole case moot. And just a week before the trial was set to begin, the Minnesota Department of Health released its own health impact analysis, the latest of three, which said it could find no evidence of higher rates of cancer or birth defects in the affected region. That contradicted the findings of Swanson's experts, creating doubt that a jury could be persuaded that harm to human health had occurred.

"I'm disappointed this did not go to trial," Hansen said. "We could have aired all this out."

John Linc Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA), who raised a family in Oakdale, expressed the same sentiment.

"I was looking forward for the opportunity to put it out in front of the community in a transparent way," he said.

A path forward

But for city administrators such as Cottage Grove's Charlene Stevens, the agreement finally "opens a path forward."

Last summer, residents there endured weeks of brown lawns and thirsty gardens while the city engineers hastily put together a new treatment system to take PFCs out of their well water. Advancing scientific research and new federal guidelines had compelled the Health Department to drastically lower its recommendation for the allowable rate of PFCs in drinking water. Cottage Grove, which had been able to meet the earlier standards, was forced to shut down contaminated wells while it erected a couple of pole barns, rented some storage tanks from the state and installed carbon filtration systems so the sprinklers could go back on.

In Woodbury, five of 19 municipal wells are contaminated with PFCs at concentrations above the new standard, said city engineer Klayton Eckles, making them useful only when there is a water shortage of some kind.

"Each one is a $2 million investment," he said. "Our system is crippled a little bit."

Now, however, there's an opportunity to think big.

Stevens said the entire region could be served by one large drinking water treatment plant.

Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi, echoed others who said pulling water from the Mississippi at a point above the contaminated area for one or more communities would solve multiple problems. Groundwater levels in the area are already under stress, as evidenced by the shrinking of White Bear Lake, he said. And both the state and 3M are pumping millions of gallons of contaminated water every day from old dump sites in Washington County in order to slow the spread of PFCs. That will go on for years — a built-in limit to population growth.

"If groundwater levels are falling, you are stealing water from your children and grandchildren," Clark said. The Mississippi has water to spare, he said, and that "would be a more sustainable approach."

The river itself, however, is unlikely to be healed because there is no easy way to cleanse it of the chemicals. Sediment in the Mississippi below 3M's Chemolite plant in Cottage Grove is contaminated, as is the aquatic life in that section, including fish. The Health Department has long-standing warnings to limit consumption of fish caught between there and Hastings because of PFCs.

It's possible that river-bottom sediment could be dredged, environmental officials said. But that could be extremely expensive, in addition to the risk of stirring up all kinds of legacy contaminants that are best left alone. And some level of PFC pollution will continue to enter the Mississippi along with the tainted groundwater that continues to seep in.

"There really isn't a remedy for getting those chemicals out of the water," Stine said.

Multiple studies have shown, meanwhile, that PFCs are accumulating in wildlife. Tree swallows contaminated with PFCs don't produce as many offspring. Eagles that nest along the Mississippi have high levels of PFCs in their eggshells, an example of how the toxic chemicals move through the ecosystem.

But the overall impact is impossible to gauge — the eagle population along the Mississippi, for one, is thriving.

The 3M settlement agreement calls for a number of broader conservation measures: creating more open land to capture clean rainwater that might help flush out the aquifers; alternative or additional habitat to improve the lives of otters and blue herons; and fishing piers in PFC-free lakes for anglers who want to eat their catch.

All of those decisions will be made by the two state agencies that are trustees of the settlement money, the Department of Natural Resources and the PCA. They will move forward under the guidance of a working group made up of local officials, drinking water experts, and — because of its expertise in the chemistry of PFCs — a representative from the company that made them: 3M.