MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota officials will soon try to convince a jury that manufacturer 3M Co. should pay the state $5 billion to help clean up environmental damage that the state alleges was caused by pollutants the company dumped for decades.
The long-awaited trial begins Tuesday in Minneapolis. Experts say it could have wide-reaching implications if the state succeeds, in part because 3M and other companies legally dumped the chemicals for years in and outside Minnesota.
The case focuses on the company’s disposal of chemicals once used to make Scotchgard fabric protector and other products. The company denies it did anything wrong or illegal.
The state alleges the chemicals damaged Minnesota’s natural resources, including more than 100 miles of the Mississippi River, and contaminated drinking water, harmed wildlife and posed a threat to human health.
Here are some key details about the fight:
WHAT THE CASE IS ABOUT
The lawsuit focuses on 3M’s disposal of perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, and their compounds. The company, which is based in Maplewood, Minnesota, began producing PFCs in the 1950s and legally disposed of them in landfills for decades. Along with Scotchgard, the chemicals were used in fire retardants, paints, nonstick cookware and other products.
The company stopped making PFCs in 2002 after negotiating with the Environmental Protection Agency, which said the chemicals could pose long-term risks to human health and the environment. But in 2004, trace amounts of the chemicals were found in groundwater near one of 3M’s dumping sites east of St. Paul. The state and 3M reached a deal three years later requiring the company to spend millions to clean up landfills and provide clean drinking water to affected communities.
But it wasn’t until 2010 that the state filed a lawsuit, alleging 3M researched PFCs and knew the chemicals were getting into the environment and posing a threat to human health. After years of delays, jury selection for a trial in state court is set to start this week.
The company has denied it did anything wrong, insisting it was acting legally at the time. In a statement last week, the company said: “3M believes that when we have an opportunity to share all the facts, discuss the science, and present the details of our position to the jury, people will conclude that the company acted responsibly.”
WHY IT MATTERS
Low levels of PFCs have been found in the environment, humans and wildlife across the globe. At least two dozen lawsuits related to PFCs have been filed against 3M around the country, including one filed last week in Massachusetts over water contamination blamed on firefighting foam.
Experts say the outcome of Minnesota’s case won’t set a nationwide legal precedent for the other cases because the decision would only be applied in Minnesota. But they say there could be a ripple effect and attorneys are watching closely.
David Andrews is a senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that conducts research to protect health and the environment. He said the case’s impact would be huge if Minnesota wins and 3M is held accountable.
“The impacts would be enormous just because of the extent of contamination nationwide and how much work still needs to be done to really clean up the mess,” Andrews told The Associated Press.
The company said it has already spent about $100 million on remediation and other projects just in Minnesota to reduce the presence of the chemicals in the environment. The company argues that levels of the chemicals in the environment and in the human body are declining.
WHAT TO EXPECT AT TRIAL
The trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis. It’s expected to last four to six weeks.
One key issue will be whether 3M’s disposal of the chemicals has increased the rate of certain health issues, including cancer. A state expert is expected to testify that the pollution increased rates of cancer, low birth-weight babies and premature births in affected areas. But the Minnesota Department of Health has found no increase in such rates.
The company says there’s no evidence the chemicals have impacted human health.
Since the Minnesota lawsuit was first filed back in 2010, concerns over PFCs have grown. In 2016, the EPA drastically reduced the recommended maximum levels of PFC concentrations for drinking water. As a result, about 15 million people learned their drinking water wasn’t considered safe for long-term consumption. According to 3M, those recommendations are cautionary.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the EPA’s advisory sent communities nationwide scrambling to install technology to treat water. Some of those communities have sued, and some are investigating to determine who or what produced the PFCs in their water, and what, if any, long-term effects they might face due to continued exposure.
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