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MPCA researcher reports dramatic test results as she's forced out

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Fardin Oliaei and the MPCA agreed on terms for her departure from the agency, after she had charged her supervisors with stifling her research into chemical contamination. (MPR Photo/Melanie Sommer)
Blood samples taken from Mississippi River fish near a 3M plant show high levels of a chemical related to the company's former Scotchgard operations. The level of the compound PFOS found in some of the fish is believed to be the highest found anywhere in the world. The tests were conducted by a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency scientist who left the agency this week, after a long dispute with her bosses over her research.

St. Paul, Minn. — Fardin Oliaei collected the samples from the fish in October 2005.

The blood samples from 24 smallmouth bass, white bass, walleye, carp and others from the Mississippi River just downstream of the 3M Cottage Grove plant, showed high levels of several perfluoronated chemicals.

The highest level came from a white bass. That sample revealed a PFOS level of 29,600 parts per billion. The level was so high, the fish was retested and the retest showed a similar level.

Oliaei quit the agency this week in a negotiated settlement, in which she dropped her federal whistleblower lawsuit against the MPCA. She says never has the blood of an animal tested this high for a perfluorinated chemical.

"That is significant. And I am leaving this agency with my final voice of asking the public to demand the Pollution Control Agency to do comprehensive work on this," says Oliaei.

Testing has shown that people, fish and mammals around the world have traces of perfluorinated chemicals in their blood. 3M's own testing has shown these chemicals to be toxic in lab animalls. But 3M says none of its testing has shown the chemicals to be toxic to humans.

There are no federal guidelines on these compounds, though the Environmental Protection Agency has asked companies to voluntarily cease making and using them.

According to Oliaei, if a fish lower in the food chain can show high levels of PFOS, then animals higher in the food chain could test even higher.

For nearly 50 years, 3M made and used PFOS and other perfluorinated compounds in Scotchgard and other products. One estimate by the Pollution Control Agency estimated as much as 50,000 pounds of the compounds were released into the Mississipp River each year.

In 2000, 3M announced it would cease use of the compounds and had mostly done so by 2002.

These latest test results were revealed by Oliaei in an inteview with Minnesota Public Radio.

Mike Sandusky, the director of the MPCA's environmental analysis and outcomes division, says the testing by Oliaei, his former agency colleague, was valuable. Now that it has this research, Sandusky says the MPCA will ask the Health Department for its advice on what the public should be told about the healthfulness of fish taken from the Mississippi River.

"The Department of Health will use this data to determine an appropriate response, within their responsiblity, to determine fish consumption advice for the state of Minnesota. So the analysis of this data, which is raw data on fish, they will use for appropriate response for fish consumption advice," says Sandusky.

Oliaei's claims that MPCA Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan, a former 3M employee and other agency managers tried to block her work, triggered two hearings by the Senate Environment Committee, chaired by Sen. John Marty.

That the MPCA views as valuable this latest research from a scientist it no longer wanted on staff, was not lost on Marty.

"I think the first thing I would do if I were them is hire someone like Dr. Oliaei -- who was just fired," says Marty. "I think what we want is people who have some expertise in this and know what's happening, and are willing to pursue it vigorously."

The samples were taken as part of the second phase of Oliaei's investigation into the spread of perfluoronated chemicals. Her earlier research found levels of the chemicals in fish taken from Voyaguers National Park.

Since then, then perfluorinated chemicals have been detected in wells in the east metro area.

Though Fardin Oliaei is no longer employed by the MPCA, her work on perflurornated chemicals will live on at the agency. At her insistence, and with the help of some DNR staff, fish have been taken from Lake Pepin on the Mississippi River, where scientists suspect perfluoronated chemicals may have accumulated in the sediment.

The MPCA's Mike Sandusky says this research is part of the agency's investigation into the spread of the chemicals statewide.