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3M suit targets plant in South Alabama

Neighbors say soil and water are contaminated

By: Jennifer Bjorhus
Saint Paul Pioneer Press
October 2, 2004

Neighbors of 3M Co.'s plant in Decatur, Ala., are suing the company, claiming that two chemicals 3M produced there for decades contaminated their soil and groundwater and lowered their property values.

The lawsuit, one of two filed in Alabama against the Maplewood manufacturer over its production of perfluorochemicals, came one day after DuPont Co. announced it will pay as much as $343 million to settle a class-action lawsuit accusing that company's Teflon plant in West Virginia of contaminating nearby water supplies with one of the same synthetic compounds that 3M made.

3M doesn't make the chemicals in the United States anymore and says the lawsuits have no merit. But combined with the DuPont settlement, the new Alabama lawsuit -- filed Sept. 10 in Decatur -- may signal the filing of similar suits related to the chemicals, possibly opening 3M to what one environmental lawyer called "tremendous" litigation risks. The plaintiffs' lawyers in the Alabama suit are seeking class-action status.

The main chemicals in question are perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly called PFOS and PFOA, which 3M made for years at its plants in Cottage Grove and in Decatur. Both lawsuits involve the Alabama facility, not the Minnesota plant.

The chemicals, which do not break down in the environment, seem ubiquitous -- found in fish in the Great Lakes and in polar bears. Scientists still are trying to figure out how they got there. They also have been found in human blood on four continents. In high doses the chemicals are considered acutely toxic to test animals, having killed or caused cancer, developmental problems and liver problems. Studies of 3M workers at the Cottage Grove and Decatur plants link PFOA exposure to certain forms of cancer and stroke.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency calls PFOS and PFOA "chemicals of concern" and is studying them for toxicity and for being possible carcinogens. A draft risk assessment of PFOA is due in November.

PFOS and PFOA are part of a family of perfluorochemicals characterized by chains of carbon atoms bonded to fluorine atoms, yielding armorlike compounds. PFOS and PFOA both have a chain of eight carbon atoms.

PFOS once was a key ingredient in 3M's original Scotchgard, which 3M has since reformulated using a cousin chemical. PFOA is a backbone industrial chemical used to make super-tough plastic and rubber that goes into a slew of products such as nonstick fry pans, silicon wafer carriers, circuit breakers, spacecraft and flame-retardant fabrics. 3M sold PFOA to DuPont for use in making Teflon.

3M announced in 2000 that it was stopping production of the two chemicals because of concerns about the environmental impacts. The company still makes a small amount of PFOA in Europe for internal use.

A 3M spokesman said neither of the Alabama lawsuits has any merit. It's unclear how great a new litigation risk the chemicals are for 3M, which still is settling lawsuits over breast implants and dust masks. An attorney for the Environmental Working Group, an organization in Washington, D.C., that has been investigating the chemicals, described the litigation risk for water contamination in particular as "tremendous," pointing to the DuPont settlement.

The new Alabama lawsuit accuses 3M of negligence, gross negligence, liability and trespass in knowing about the problems with the compounds and not notifying nearby residents. While the release of the compounds has residents fearing future illness, the plaintiffs aren't seeking damages related to disease, the suit says.

Three managers at the 3M Decatur plant are named as defendants. The plaintiffs' class could range from several hundred to thousands, the filing says, as it includes all affected property owners in the area. Rhon Jones, a Montgomery, Ala., attorney representing the plaintiffs, declined to comment.

3M said the allegations in both suits ignore and misstate extensive scientific research. compounds."

A separate lawsuit claiming adverse health effects of PFOS and PFOA was filed against 3M in Decatur two years ago and is pending. That lawsuit names three former and current 3M plant workers and their three children as plaintiffs, accusing 3M of lying to employees about whether working with perfluorochemicals was safe.

According to the complaint, one of the plaintiffs, who worked at the 3M plant for 25 years, has very high levels of PFOS, PFOA and other perfluorochemicals in his blood and has developed a disabling central nervous system disorder. The three children have blood contaminated with PFOS and PFOA because their mothers worked at the plant, but the complaint doesn't say the contamination made the children sick.

Leon Ashford, an attorney in Birmingham, Ala., who is representing the plaintiffs, wouldn't discuss the case. Minnesota health officials are finalizing a study of the public health impacts of PFOS and PFOA contamination at 3M's Cottage Grove plant. A report draft concludes there isn't enough data on how the public is exposed to the chemicals to determine whether the plant is a public health hazard. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency calls PFOA "an emerging contaminant."

"We're trying to stay ahead of it," said Walker Smith, a spokesman for the agency.

The Pollution Control Agency is monitoring several wells near a closed Washington County landfill for PFOA. So far, the levels are below the 7-parts-per-billion threshold the state Health Department set as acceptable for drinking.

"3M has acted responsibly and openly in addressing these compounds," said company spokesman Rick Renner. "We discovered their widespread distribution in the environment and brought it to the attention of government regulators and the public. We conducted extensive research on these compounds and shared that research with regulators and the scientific community. We voluntarily phased out virtually all production of these compounds because we didn't want to add to their presence in the environment. We have monitored our employees for decades and have found no adverse health affects associated with these water.

DuPont is now the lone U.S. manufacturer of PFOA. No one in the United States makes PFOS, according to 3M's Renner.

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