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St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota)

March 11, 2005

More 3M water testing urged
Group targets two chemicals

Pioneer Press

State Health Department officials are testing wells near Cottage Grove for contamination by two 3M Co. chemicals, but a national environmental group is urging Minnesota's Pollution Control Agency to step up testing of groundwater statewide.

The Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., is urging the state agency to broaden sampling of two per-fluorochemicals manufactured by 3M at its Chemolite plant in Cottage Grove.

"Given the persistence and toxicity of this chemical, we strongly urge you to initiate the testing programs your staff have requested in order to learn if other at-risk water supplies are contaminated," Jane Houlihan, the environmental group's vice president of research, said in a March 9 letter to the commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Houlihan is referring to requests by Pollution Control Agency scientist Fardin Oliaei, head of the agency's program on emerging contaminants. In a report that aired last month on Minnesota Public Radio, Oliaei said the agency rejected several proposals she has made to study how the chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, are traveling underground from contaminated sites. Oliaei also said agency Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan told her the studies were inappropriate research science.

In the letter, Houlihan asks Corrigan to sell the $20,000 worth of 3M stock she holds. Corrigan is a former 3M employee.

Mike Rafferty, a spokesman for the Pollution Control Agency, said Corrigan has recused herself from handling any 3M-related issues. The agency is considering further research, he said.

3M is cooperating with the Department of Health's testing and maintains that the chemicals pose no threat to the environment or human health. No one from 3M could be reached for comment on the Environmental Working Group's letter.

The two man-made chemicals — perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly called PFOS and PFOA — were used in 3M's original Scotchgard formulation. 3M also sold PFOA to DuPont for use in making Teflon. Maplewood-based 3M says it has halted production of the chemicals except for small amounts of PFOA. The company faces three lawsuits alleging perfluorochemical contamination, including one from two Cottage Grove residents claiming 3M's plant there polluted their air, water and soil.

The chemicals don't break down in the environment. A variety of studies have linked the chemicals to strokes, liver problems, cancer, birth defects and other health problems. 3M says it has carefully monitored employees exposed to the chemicals and that no employees have ever gotten sick from the compounds or had their health affected.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls PFOS and PFOA "chemicals of concern" that it is studying for toxicity and as possible carcinogenics.

The Pollution Control Agency sampled the Washington County Landfill last fall and found traces of PFOS and PFOA in concentrations below the health limits established by the state, Rafferty said. It also tested 32 private wells near that landfill and also found levels of the chemicals below the health limits. The agency then tested seven other landfills throughout the metro area and detected the chemicals in only one at levels below the health limits.

"Certainly there's a person here that's looking into doing research," Rafferty said. "We think it's an issue that we need to look at."

Rafferty said pollution control staff met with Minnesota Department of Health staff Wednesday to determine "where we're heading with the two chemicals." He said the group, which includes some 3M staff, will continue to meet monthly.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health has conducted its own tests of water supplies. It has tested Oakdale's city wells for the chemicals three times, according to department hydrogeologist Ginny Yingling. So far no samples have exceeded the state's designated safety limit of one part per billion of PFOS and seven parts per billion of PFOA.

The Health Department has also sampled several other types of wells in Oakdale, Woodbury and Lake Elmo and all samples were under the cutoff or showed no contamination. It has sampled about 35 private wells in the area but results aren't in yet, Yingling said.

Jennifer Bjorhus can be reached at jbjorhus@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-2146.