PFOA 2005
Papers sealed in 3M lawsuit
But judge widens chemical inquiry.
By John Welbes. Pioneer Press (Minnesota). December 21, 2005.

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December 21, 2005

Pioneer Press (Minnesota)

Papers sealed in 3M lawsuit
But judge widens chemical inquiry


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 human health.

"We believe the case is about more than PFOA and PFOS," said Rhon Jones, an attorney representing the residents.

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 secrets.

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, Anfinson said.

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 or 651-228-2175.

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