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3M settlement money earmarked for water improvements

(Left to right) Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, Attorney General Lori Swanson, and Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine discuss the uses of the $850 million settlement between the state and 3M on Feb. 21. Katie Nelson / Forum News Service

MINNEAPOLIS—Nearly 24 hours after Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and 3M Corp. settled their lawsuit for $850 million, Swanson, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources were planning where to allocate the funds.

The lawsuit, originally filed in December 2010, was settled early Tuesday morning, Feb. 20, just before the trial was set to start.

The settlement order allows funds to be allocated to three main areas: improvements to water quality and sustainability; restoring the area's natural resources; and statewide water remediation or further recreation projects. The second two will only be done if the first priority has been achieved, according to the order.

"It will be spent first and foremost fixing the drinking water problems in the east metropolitan area," Swanson said. "It will also be used to enhance water sustainability; there's a supply problem."

The settlement money will be disbursed to the state by March 7 in a grant from 3M. As trustees, the MPCA and DNR will oversee the grant. Swanson said the settlement agreement was set up so the stakeholders would be able to use the funds, and the Legislature would not have access to them, though Gov. Mark Dayton hinted Wednesday, Jan. 21, that he expects legislators to get involved.

"Keeping the Legislature's hands off a pot of money — history speaks for itself," he said.

The settlement agreement states that Washington County communities are the first priority for funding, though it is not limited to them.

A working group comprised of representatives from east metro communities in the Twin Cities, the MPCA, the DNR and 3M will start forming during the next couple of weeks, MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said, to decide where the funds should be directed. The group should be starting to meet by spring.

"We administer the funds, and we will be taking advice from this working group before we allocate any funds," he said.

Cottage Grove, Minn., was deeply affected by perfluorochemicals (PFCs) in municipal water when the Minnesota Department of Health lowered its recommended health-based values last May causing several of their wells to be above the recommendation. The city is hoping to receive money for one or more water treatment facilities from the settlement.

Swanson said they also will direct funds to the 650 homeowners in the east metro area whose private wells are polluted by PFCs.

Settlement funds allocated to the DNR will be used to restore natural resources, including for birds, fish and other wildlife that have bioaccumulated PFCs in their bodies, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said.

"(Wildlife) start to raise the concentration in their own body with those PFCs, and (there are) multiple health concerns for fish and wildlife in those cases. It has an effect on immunity, it has an effect on longevity, it has an effect on reproductive capabilities," he said.

Health department

On Feb. 7, just days before the trial was set to start, the Minnesota Department of Health released an analysis that said there were not higher instances of cancer or babies born premature and with low birth weights in the east metro area than in the rest of the metro area. The analysis was in direct opposition to a study Swanson's expert witness had done, which showed higher rates in Oakdale.

With questions swirling about the health department's release of an analysis of cancer and low-weight births in the east metro area just days before the trial was set to start, Swanson emphasized that the settlement and the lawsuit concerned natural resources and not cases of health or home values.

"This was a natural resources damages case, meaning the lawsuit's aim was to fix the natural resources, so monies can be used for conservation projects...," Swanson said. "This was not a case for personal injury. We don't have authority to bring a personal injury case on behalf of the people of Minnesota, and also, we don't have the authority to bring a case directly for the people to get back the diminution in their home values."

A statement released by the attorney general's office Tuesday said the MDH "tried to blindside the state's lawsuit" just before the trial.

"It did not help the case," said Swanson.

She said members of the MDH gave a deposition leading up to the trial that currently is confidential, and she will have "more to say" on that later.

Gov. Mark Dayton praised Swanson for her work on the 3M case, but on Wednesday, Feb. 21, he also defended his order to the MDH to release a report about cancer cases in the eastern Twin Cities before the trial began.

"I gave them another week to bring it together," he said when he learned that the department was preparing the report. "They needed a deadline," he added. They were, in my judgement, floundering."

The information may have hurt the state's case against 3M because it did not prove that the company's chemical dumping caused cancer.

MDH representatives could not immediately be reached for comment on this story.

Forum News Service reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.