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Legislative hearing raises questions about MPCA, 3M relationship

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Fardin Oliaei testified before the Senate Environment Committee that state regulators and 3M have blocked her PFC research. (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
A Senate environmental committee heard testimony again on Thursday on whether the MPCA is dragging its feet on investigating perfluorinated chemical contamination from 3M operations. The compounds, known as PFCs, were used in the production of stain-resistant and water-resistant products, including Scotchgard. 3M doesn't make the chemicals anymore, but they are found widely in the environment. They've been detected in East Metro wells and in Mississippi river fish. Studies have linked the PFCs to cancer in lab animals.

At the hearing, an MPCA research scientist testified for the second time in a month that her employer is not doing enough to protect Minnesotans who might be exposed to these chemicals.

St. Paul, Minn. — The last time Fardin Oliaei testified before the Senate Environment Committee, she told lawmakers that the MPCA had blocked her PFC research numerous times and reprimanded her for supposedly dishonoring her colleagues. When she testified this time, she told the committee that in addition to interference from her bosses, she's also endured interference from 3M.

Oliaei described a meeting that she attended on April 26, 2005 with her managers and several representatives from 3M. She says in that meeting she talked about her research and her desire to take more samples that included studying fish in the Mississippi River downstream from 3M's Cottage Grove production plant.

"The project manager of 3M, Mr. Santoro, very strongly objected to my proposal and he was in fact angry and very clearly expressed that 3M does not want me to the PCA to pursue this project," she said.

Oliaei says 3M's Michael Santoro told her that 3M was already planning similar studies and that there was no point in duplicating the work. It is MPCA policy to allow companies that are responsible for contamination to take the lead on cleanup projects. In this case, 3M has been in charge of hiring an independent company to do the PFC contamination testing.

Oliaei says she does not think that policy is appropriate in this case. But she says she didn't get any backup from her managers that day.

"The managers were sitting there and with their quietness I believe that they kind of confirmed Mr. Santoro's position and it got to a point where I really feel lack of support from the agency to the point that I express I don't know who is my boss here," she said.

After the meeting Oliaei says her managers piled on needless work and gave her short deadlines to present her work plan.

Oliaei's colleague Don Kriens, who testified on her behalf previously, again backed up Oliaei's story under questioning from Committee chair John Marty.

"Did you hear Mr. Santoro object to the study? Object to PCA doing this study?" Marty asked.

"Yes I did," he replied. "He was rather quite agitated. He strongly objected. He just made it quite clear that he didn't want us to do the studies."

"The managers, the PCA people, did they comment on this?" Marty pressed.

"Well what I recall was it was quiet, I think is the best way to characterize it. And it felt awkward and I didn't want Santoro coming in there and telling us what to do, so I just... I remember I made comments then that MPCA has a right to do these studies and that they were important and we need to do them," Kriens said.

But MPCA manager Michael Kanner had a different interpretation of the meeting with 3M.

"I think that the short time frame was a surprise and as well I think probably for 3M, Santoro I think indicated that they wanted to have the ability to take good samples," he said.

"I guess I'm more interested in why if some business is coming in there and Mr. Kriens said it was unusual for it to happen this way that you and other managers wouldn't say, 'hey wait a minute! This is not an appropriate role for you. You're the regulated industry, we're the regulator. We're the law enforcement in effect. You can give us advice but you don't put pressure on our folks. You don't try and talk them out of doing studies they think are important,'" Marty said.

"I think the final bottom line is that we did the studies. We supported the studies and all the work was done," Kanner said.

Oliaei disputed Kanner's account. She says her research was restricted and in some cases blocked.

3M spokesman Bill Nelson, wasn't at the meeting in question, but he says it was described to him as a "congenial business meeting."

"The only comment that we made was that all of the environmental investigations taking place should be coordinated... the MPCA has asked or looks to responsible parties to do investigations and it was in that context that in terms of the work that 3M is doing I think it would helpful to advance the whole body of science that the work be coordinated," Nelson said.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Cheryl Corrigan turned down the committee's request to testify for the second time. Corrigan, who is a former 3M employee, sent a letter to the committee saying she has recused herself from all matters involving 3M. Her deputy commissioner, Kristin Applegate, answered questions on the agency's behalf.

Applegate told the committee that the dispute with Oliaei is "difficult and unfortunate" for all involved, but that it's wrong to conclude that the MPCA has not made the PFC contamination issue a big priority. She says the agency has decided to focus its efforts on likely contamination sources like dumps, rather than widely testing for PFCs throughout the environment.

The last person to testify was Dale Case, a homeowner in Oakdale who used to work for 3M as a chemist. Case told the committee that he lives near one of the landfills contaminated with PFCs. He told Applegate that if Commissioner Corrigan has recused herself from this issue, then he assumes that she, as deputy commissioner, is the next in line to hear his concerns.

Case told Applegate that he doesn't know if PFCs are to blame, but he lost his wife to cancer less than two years ago and three of his four unrelated dogs have died of liver failure.

"I would ask you two questions: first, if I invited you to my home to discuss PFOS issues and I offered you a nice tall glass of water from my faucet would you drink it? Second question is just how many tall glasses of water do you think I gave to my wife, my children and my dogs over the last 30 years," he said.

Applegate told Case that she is concerned about his story and that PFC contamination is a priority.

At the end of the hearing, Sen. John Marty told the committee he's not sure what the next step will be on the PFC issue. The Legislature doesn't have authority over the MPCA policies.

But even if lawmakers can't do much beyond holding hearings on the matter, there may be other efforts underway. Fardin Oliaei told the committee that she recently found out that the federal EPA has opened a criminal investigation on the PFC issue.

However, 3M says it is not being investigated by the EPA. DuPont, which has used PFCs in its products, has acknowledged publicly that it is under investigation by the EPA. An EPA spokeswoman says the agency does not disclose whether it is conducting investigations.

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