December 21, 2005
Pioneer Press (Minnesota)
Papers sealed in 3M lawsuit
But judge widens chemical inquiry
BY JOHN WELBES
The 500,000-plus documents
that 3M Co. soon will hand over in response to a lawsuit alleging
groundwater contamination in Washington County will be sealed,
a judge ruled Monday.
For Maplewood-based 3M, the ruling means that the
trade secrets it says could be contained in those papers won't
be made public. The decision also means that any additional information
disclosed in the documents about the 3M-made chemicals in question
won't become public — at least not initially.
But Washington County District Court Judge Mary
Hannon also ruled that 3M will have to produce documents on perfluorochemicals
beyond the two that have been the focus of the lawsuit so far.
The manmade chemicals — perfluorooctane sulfonate
and perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly called PFOS and PFOA —
don't break down in the environment and have been found around
the globe in animal and human blood. There's disagreement on whether
the chemicals cause cancer and other health problems, and a group
of scientists commissioned by the federal government is deciding
whether to label PFOA as a carcinogen.
PFOS was a key chemical in 3M's original Scotchgard
product, which has since been reformulated with a different perfluorochemical.
Cottage Grove residents Felicia Palmer and Sesario
Briseno filed suit against the manufacturer in 2004, and other
plaintiffs since have been added. PFOA and PFOS have been found
in the Oakdale municipal well and private wells in the area.
Hannon's order lays out a time line for the case,
including a hearing on class-action status in November 2006. Attorneys
say a trial usually doesn't launch until months after such a hearing.
An attorney for the Washington County residents
said Hannon's ruling on the inclusion of additional perfluorochemicals
is "incredibly significant" as medical literature continues
to raise questions about other perfluorochemicals' effects on
"We believe the case is about more than PFOA
and PFOS," said Rhon Jones, an attorney representing the
3M had argued in a court hearing in September that
including other perfluorochemicals in the discovery phase would
bring additional burden and cost.
The company is prepared to provide the additional
documents on other perfluorochemicals, Bill Nelson, a 3M spokesman,
said Tuesday. He added that 3M stands behind its own research
that shows no adverse effects on human health from exposure to
PFOS and PFOA.
In her ruling on sealing the 3M documents, Hannon
cited a 2003 case in which the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune
newspaper sought financial records of the Minnesota Twins as well
as the state of Minnesota's case against tobacco maker Philip
Morris Inc. in 2000.
Protective orders guarding the Twins' financial
records and Philip Morris' trade data were issued in those cases.
The attorneys representing residents of Cottage
Grove and nearby areas in the 3M case will be able to ask the
court to unseal documents that they think don't include trade
Mark Anfinson, a First Amendment attorney in Minneapolis,
said it's become almost standard procedure in cases involving
environmental and health issues for the court to seal corporate
documents turned over in discovery.
But the ability to ask the court to unseal certain
documents is important, he said, particularly in an environmental
case with potential effects on public health.
If the 3M documents contain, for example, more details
about groundwater contamination, "3M would have a considerably
tougher burden to show it shouldn't be disclosed" publicly,
During a court hearing in September, 3M's lawyers
said that a team of attorneys and paralegals had spent four months
assembling 500,000 documents, which are set to be handed over
to the plaintiffs' attorneys.
John Welbes can be reached at email@example.com