Documents: 3M concerned about chemicals in the 1980s

4:24 PM, Apr 25, 2007   |    comments
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An internal report by scientists at 3M Co. suggests that back in 1983, officials had concerns about the environmental effects of chemicals that have recently turned up in water and soil around the Twin Cities. The report, which was stamped confidential but turned over by 3M in a lawsuit, shows scientists believed the perfluorochemicals used in Scotchgard and other products posed "very little problem" when compared with related chemicals. Yet, they also believed the PFCs might affect the environment and that the compounds might be "even more resistant to degradation" than chemicals such as PCBs and the pesticide DDT. The report recommended spending $500,000 to study the issue. "Proper testing can strengthen the contention that our products are environmentally sound or it can enable us to identify problems as soon as possible," the report said, adding that 3M might gain a "beneficial marketing effect" by showing the chemicals were safe, while spotting problems "could help 3M avoid potential costly environmental problems and adverse publicity." 3M manufactured PFCs until 2000, and phased them out completely in 2002, saying it was concerned about the chemicals' spread in the environment and in human blood. The chemicals have since shown up in private wells and public water supplies in Lake Elmo and Oakdale. A related chemical was found in municipal water systems in Woodbury, Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Newport, Hastings and South St. Paul. The internal report and other documents were turned over in a Washington County District Court lawsuit against 3M. The lawsuit was filed three years ago by residents affected by the contamination. The residents' attorneys say the documents show that 3M knew since the 1970s that PFCs had properties that made them hazardous and that the information was concealed. 3M spokesman Bill Nelson denied that 3M concealed information. He said other, undisclosed documents show 3M or its consultants told state officials in 1982 about PFC wastes in one landfill. He declined to comment in detail about the documents, but said the chemicals are not a health hazard. "It is a familiar drumbeat by contingent-fee lawyers," Nelson said. Residents' attorneys inadvertently included confidential portions in written comments to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which is considering declaring three 3M disposal areas Superfund sites. Those documents were also provided to the Star Tribune. When the lawyers learned of the mistake, they asked the agency and the newspaper to return the documents. The state agency returned them, receiving redacted versions instead. The Star Tribune retained copies of the unredacted documents. On Tuesday, Washington County District Judge Mary Hannon denied a motion by residents' attorneys to block the newspaper from publishing the material. A lawyer for the residents shook his head when the newspaper asked for comment. In another company report released in the case, 3M officials in 1979 reported that one type of PFC was found in the Mississippi River between 1975-1978. Other studies showed the chemical was in aquatic organisms that "are utilized as a human food source," the report said. Even so, the report said it "appears of minimal importance" because PFCs tended to bind with soil and sediments. It concluded that tests suggested that the chemical "will not present an unreasonable environmental risk." In tests over the past two years, state researchers found one type of PFC in fish from the Mississippi River below the 3M plant and in Lake Calhoun in south Minneapolis. This month, state health officials warned against eating too much fish from those waterways. In a related development, on Tuesday the MPCA was directed by its Citizens' Board to negotiate with 3M over cleaning three metro area sites contaminated with the chemicals, rather than giving the agency the power to order the cleanups. However, the board said it could re-visit the issue next month to give the agency the power to classify former 3M chemicals as hazardous substances under state Superfund law.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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