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Minn. seeks $5 billion for alleged 3M pollution

ST. PAUL—Minnesota is seeking $5 billion in damages from 3M Co. in what could become one of the largest environmental lawsuits in the nation's history.

In Hennepin County District Court documents filed Friday, the attorney general charged that chemicals manufactured by Maplewood-based 3M have damaged human health and the environment.

Those documents said that the chemicals increased the rates of cancer in Washington County. A study cited by the attorney general concluded there was a "statistically significant" increase in cancer rates for people living in Oakdale, one of the communities affected by the pollution.

The study blamed the chemicals for an increase in premature births, babies with a low birth-weight, and infertility.

3M attorneys said, as they have for more than a decade, that the tiny traces of the perfluorochemicals in drinking water have never been proven to cause any health effect.

The Attorney General's Office did not respond to a phone message requesting comment. The office filed the lawsuit in 2010, and it is scheduled to go to trial on Feb. 13. The latest filings put a price tag on the damages being sought. 3M stock rose nearly 1 percent on Monday.

3M started manufacturing perfluorochemicals in the 1940s and ended in 2002. They were used to make fire-fighting foam, stain repellents such as Scotchgard and non-stick cookware.

3M disposed of the chemicals in landfills in Oakdale, Woodbury and Lake Elmo, ending in the 1970s.

Traces of the chemicals have been found in people and animals around the world, starting in the 1990s. In 2004, the pollution was discovered in groundwater in several Washington County cities, after apparently leaching from the dump sites.

Since then, the company has spent more than $100 million to clean up the pollution, including installing water filters in the Oakdale city water system and providing filters and bottled water to residents.

STUDY SHOWS CANCER INCREASE

In the court documents, Dr. David Sunding, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, reported on his study of the health impact of the pollutants in Oakdale. From 2001 to 2016, he found a "statistically significant" increase in cancers of the bladder, breast, kidney and prostate. Sunding also found a "statistically significant increase in the probability of a child's death record including cancer or cancer-related disease in Oakdale."

He concluded that there was a 30 percent increase in the incidence of low birth-weights and premature births, compared with other neighboring communities. The fertility rate was about 16 percent lower.

He said that these effects lessened after 2006 — when the chemicals were filtered out of Oakdale municipal water.

3M disputes Sunding's conclusions.

The company says that no health effect to human beings has ever been proven. Even the effects shown in laboratory mice — cancer, thyroid problems, birth defects — occur when mega-doses of the chemicals were applied.

Today the amounts found in water are measured in parts per trillion — equivalent to one second in 32,000 years. That is an amount so tiny, say 3M officials, that it could not possibly have any health effect.

STATE HEALTH FACTOR

In 2007, the state Department of Health studied the health of residents in areas where the drinking water had been exposed to the chemicals for more than 30 years.

The department found no additional risk of cancer or any other ailment. In fact, it reported the cancer rate was slightly lower than normal.

The chemicals have also been detected in fish and wildlife, but 3M says that does not mean that the animals have been harmed.

"The case is based on the mistaken belief that the mere presence of these chemicals presents harm to human health and the environment," said 3M attorney William A. Brewer III.

"This lawsuit is a misguided attempt by the State to force a responsible local corporate citizen to pay for a problem that does not exist."

POLLUTION COSTS

In the attorney general's court documents, professor Sunding also calculated the economic cost of the pollution.

Part of it, he said, was the impact on property values, because home-buyers avoid areas affected by pollution. He estimated the losses to be $288 annually per Oakdale household, and $231 per year in other affected communities.

The "natural resource damages," he said, totaled $1.5 billion. That did not include an estimated $830 million in financial damage for existing households, and another $309 million for people moving into the area by 2050.

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