Court ruling delays action in environmental suit against 3M
ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Supreme Court has delayed action involving the state’s lawsuit accusing 3M Co. of damaging the environment.
The court, asked to decide whether the state’s legal firm should be disqualified, kicked that decision back down to a lower court for more fact-finding.
The attorney general is suing 3M for allegedly damaging the environment with perfluorochemicals, or PFCs. But 3M has argued that the attorney general’s law firm, Covington & Burling LLC, should be disqualified because Covington previously worked with 3M.
A Hennepin County District Court ruled in 3M’s favor in 2012, against Covington and the attorney general. On appeal, the Supreme Court issued its ruling Wednesday that one issue needed more study — whether 3M knew that its former law firm had switched sides.
The environmental lawsuit involves traces of PFCs made by 3M and other companies, which have been found in people and animals around the world. In Minnesota, the chemicals have been discovered in the Mississippi River, several lakes and the groundwater in parts of Washington County.
“3M polluted the waters, and this case is about getting the company to make it right,” said attorney general spokesman Ben Wogsland.
“We look forward to getting back to District Court for further proceedings … and then refocusing on substance of the litigation.”
Megadoses of PFCs have been found to cause cancer and birth defects in mice, but the chemicals have not been shown to cause health problems in humans at any dose.
3M attorneys have said the parts-per-billion of PFCs in the environment have not hurt anyone or caused environmental damage.
Bill Brewer, a partner with the 3M law firm Bickel & Brewer, predicted that Covington would eventually be disqualified from the case, which would be a setback for the attorney general’s lawsuit.
“We are looking forward to presenting additional facts that the Supreme Court said we should bring up,” Brewer said. “We are confident, at the end of the day, that Covington will be disqualified.”
3M wants to have Covington disqualified because Covington worked with 3M from 1992 to 2006. Covington represented 3M in matters involving the health effects of the PFCs contained in food packaging.
It’s a conflict of interest, say 3M lawyers, for Covington to switch sides.
The attorney general has worked with Covington since 1995 on legal matters involving the environment. The state argues that 3M has waived its right to protest Covington’s switch, because 3M knew about it long before work on the state’s environmental lawsuit began.
3M lawyers say 3M never waived that right.
The Supreme Court action Wednesday directed the district court to study the matter of when, or if, 3M learned about Covington’s decision to work on the anti-3M lawsuit.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.