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February 24, 2005

Grand Forks Herald (Minnesotta)

MPCA slow to look into contamination from 3M chemical

Associated Press

ST. PAUL - When 3M discontinued its popular Scotchgard product in 2000 because of concerns about one of its chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency began a major investigation.

But in Minnesota, where the chemical was developed, the state Pollution Control Agency waited two more years to begin looking into the matter - after 3M notified it that the chemical had contaminated drinking water at the company's Cottage Grove facility, according to a report this week by Minnesota Public Radio.

And an MPCA researcher said she was rebuffed in her interest in looking further into the contamination by MPCA middle managers, noteworthy because the MPCA is run by a former 3M employee who still has stock in the company.

Scotchgard was one of 3M's signature products for decades. But it was made from a chemical that breaks down into perfluorooctanyl sulfonate, known as PFOS, made at 3M's plant in Decatur, Ala. 3M also made perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, at its plant in Cottage Grove, which it sold to customers like DuPont for use in its Teflon non-stick coatings.

Those two compounds apparently don't break down in the environment, scientists said. And 3M's medical director, Dr. Larry Zobel, said PFOS stays in the human body about five years, and PFOA almost four. That is only a problem if the chemicals turn out to be toxic in humans - but they have already been shown to cause birth defects and even death in lab animals when high doses were involved.

The EPA said it's not yet clear whether the chemicals hurt humans. The EPA investigation focuses on Alabama and West Virginia, two places where PFOA continues to be used.

3M said the chemicals have not caused health effects in its workers in Alabama or Minnesota. But it does show up in 3M workers' blood.

In 1997, a lab comparing 3M workers' blood to randomly chosen Red Cross samples found the chemicals in the blood bank samples too. This indicated the chemicals had become widespread in humans, though at low levels. A 3M-funded study in 2001 found that PFOS and PFOA had been found in the blood of animals including polar bears in Alaska and albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean.

The company and state agencies are now doing comprehensive testing of the soil and groundwater at the company's Cottage Grove plant. And 3M has agreed to test fish and water from the Mississippi River near the plant, and will investigate landfills where it disposed of waste from its chemical operations.

Tests have already found traces of the chemicals in the water supply for the St. Paul suburb of Oakdale. The state Health Department concluded there was insufficient data to say if the 3M Cottage Grove plant posed a risk to people or the environment.

It's not clear why it took the MPCA so long to look into the matter, MPR reported.

"There was no evil intent," said Michael Kanner, who runs MPCA's Superfund division. "... In retrospect we wish we had probably started earlier. We wish we had more information from EPA, from 3M, from (the) health department on what all the numbers should be in terms of health values and so on. But we didn't."

One MPCA scientist, Dr. Fardin Oliaei, tried to do more, MPR reported.

Oliaei, whose role at MPCA is to identify new environmental threats, wanted independent confirmation of what 3M was finding.

She got approval in 2002 to study 14 fish in Voyageurs National Park and found half of the samples were contaminated with perfluorinated chemicals.

Oliaei wanted to trace the contaminants from their source - probably 3M, she figured - through wastewater treatment plants, sewage sludge, sediment, and finally to fish and humans.

In 2003, she requested $140,000 for research into PFOA and PFOS along with unrelated studies of flame-retardants and pharmaceuticals. When that was rejected, she lowered her request to $14,000. That was rejected, too.

Oliaei, who has sued the MPCA in employment disputes, said she took her case directly to Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan, a former 3M senior environmental engineer who said she still owns about $20,000 worth of 3M stock.

"For us as a Pollution Control Agency, we should do the monitoring of this stuff," Oliaei said she told Corrigan.

"And she told me, 'Let me tell you - if you like to do scientific work, this agency is not a scientific institution. I strongly suggest you go somewhere else to do science work.' And that was my first, maybe, and last conversation with her."

Corrigan disputed that the two ever discussed perfluorinated chemicals, MPR said, though she praised Oliaei for showing that the chemical is showing up in the environment.

"But that's as far as we want to go," Corrigan told MPR. "Now we need to start looking to the involved agencies around how to fix it. I'm not sure that research scientists belong at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency."

Information from: Minnesota Public Radio, http://www.mpr.org