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State settles for $850M in 3M lawsuit

Cottage Grove, Minn., houses one of the east metro's 3M sites. Katie Nelson / Forum News Service

MINNEAPOLIS — Just before the trial between Minnesota and 3M Corp was set to start more than seven years after its original filing, the parties agreed to a $850 million settlement.

The settlement is less than a fifth of the $5 billion State Attorney General Lori Swanson was asking at the outset of the trial.

In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 20, Swanson said the settlement money will be used to fund drinking water quality and water sustainability in the east metro. She said it could be used for individual homeowners' wells, municipal wells and possibly water treatment facilities.

Swanson filed the original lawsuit in December 2010.

Beginning in the 1950s, 3M began dumping perfluorochemicals in Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Oakdale and Lake Elmo. The company has stated that at the time they did not know the chemicals were harmful.

The PFCs migrated from the unlined dumping pits across a 100-square-mile plume in the east metro and into groundwater and Mississippi River.

Swanson argued that by the 1960s, 3M knew dumping PFCs would be harmful for health and pollute the area, as well as claiming the company covered up the fact that they knew and did nothing about it.

"I call it the Pottery Barn rule: If you break something you fix it, and here the idea is the payment will be used to remedy the drinking problems with these chemicals," Swanson said in a news conference Feb. 20.

Swanson said there are 650 homeowners in the east metro whose private wells have been affected by PFCs, in addition to several municipal and public wells containing the chemical.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have been named the trustees of the settlement money. Swanson said there will be a working group likely comprised of involved municipalities and agencies to determine where the money would be best spent.

There is currently no timeline for when this work will begin, but Swanson said it could come together quickly.

"The state would want to move as expeditiously as possible, and the intent is to fix the problem," Swanson said.

After weeks-long negotiations between the state and 3M that Swanson said ended around 5 a.m. Tuesday morning, 3M has agreed to pay the $850 million to the state by March 7.

Health Department

The trial set to start Feb. 20 was pushed back one week after the Minnesota Department of Health released an analysis finding that cancer and low birth weight or premature birth rates were no higher than the rest of the metro. The analysis was in opposition to what Swanson's expert witness, David Sunding of the University of California-Berkeley, found.

In a study, Sunding found a higher incidence of infertility in women and lower birth weights in Oakdale. After the city switched to non-contaminated water in 2006, low birth rates declined, according to Sunding's study.

Health fears mounted in the east metro once again after the study was added to court documents last November.

The opposing analysis the MDH released Feb. 7 "did not help the case at all," Swanson said during the press conference.

"I'm going to have more to say about that later, but I am very troubled by what the health department did in this case, springing this kind of issue forward on the eve of trial," Swanson said.