In the late fall of 2004, Fardin Oliaei's work took her to the Washington County Landfill, on the border of Lake Elmo and Oakdale. She was collecting soil and water samples as part of the state's investigation into perfluorochemicals, also known as PFCs.
3M had been making the products for more than 50 years for use in water- and stain-resistant products, including Scotchgard. But in 2000, the company said it was phasing out some of the compounds because they had spread throughout the environment. They had also been detected in the blood of 3M workers. Early research suggested the chemicals were toxic to lab animals.
Oliaei sampled the landfill because 3M had used the site to dispose of PFC waste. Oliaei would later be forced out of the agency for pushing for a wider investigation into PFCs.
But in 2004, her assignment was to find out if two chemicals of concern, PFOA and PFOS, were present in the groundwater. She also tested for a few other PFC compounds.
PFOA FOUND AT 'HUGE' LEVELS
When her results came back a few months later, Oliaei was surprised at what she found. One of her groundwater samples revealed very high concentrations of a third chemical, called perfluorobutanoic acid or PFBA. The compound had been used to make photographic film until 1998, when 3M stopped manufacturing it.
PFBA wasn't a concern for the state at that time. But the amounts of the compound in her sample were so large, Oliaei says she knew her finding was significant. Her PFBA reading was almost 1,200 parts per billion. That compares to 40 parts per billion of the next highest PFC compound she detected.
"It was huge. It was the most dominant. And it was reason to question its presence in those water that was already contaminated with high levels of PFOS and PFOA," she told Minnesota Public Radio News recently.
Oliaei says as soon as she got her findings, in either January or February of 2005, she shared them with two Health Department officials. These were people who were in charge of drinking water testing at the agency. It's the Health Department's job to take field data from the MPCA and use it to determine whether water is safe to drink.
Oliaei says she told each of the officials, in separate encounters, that it was possible the PFBA contamination had spread through the groundwater to drinking water in nearby communities like Lake Elmo and Oakdale.
"I insisted, and I recommended that the Health Department look at the drinking water of the public residents, whether city water or private wells, for PFBA," Oliaei said.
But two years would pass between the time Oliaei made her discovery and the time the agency informed the majority of east metro residents that PFBA had gotten into their drinking wells. That was Jan. 19, 2007.
HEALTH DEPARTMENT DELAYED DISCLOSURE
Oliaei says Health Department officials ignored her request. She says one official told her it was unnecessary to test for PFBA because 3M had told him the chemical was not toxic.
She says the other health official said she was uncomfortable testing for a chemical that they knew so little about, that they hadn't even developed safety standards for it.
"I heard from them that if we do that then and we find that, we don't have any kind of criteria to let public know. So, in fact they chose not to understand the severity of the problem with closing their eyes," Oliaei said.
Both of those Health Department officials say they don't share Oliaei's recollections.
"I'm not going to say it's incorrect or correct. I'm going to say I really don't remember a meeting with Fardin that I was at, frankly on this question. I just flat out don't remember this," said Rita Messing, the environmental health supervisor Oliaei says she spoke to at the department.
Messing's colleague, Jim Kelly, does vaguely recall a conversation with Oliaei in early 2005 about her findings. He's less sure about what he might have said about 3M's data on the chemical.
"I don't recollect specifically what I may or may not have said to her," said Kelly. "Whatever I would have said would have been based upon my knowledge of PFBA at that time, which was admittedly limited -- as it was for everyone else. And I don't know exactly specifically what I would have said."
Kelly says regardless of the specifics of his conversation with Oliaei, the information didn't merit pursuing at that time. He says her data weren't verified. Kelly says it was possible the laboratory she had used in Canada had made a mistake.
DEVELOPMENT OF TESTS TAKES MONTHS
Kelly says once the Health Department got final verification of Oliaei's field test data in October 2005, the agency then turned its attention to figuring out how to develop a test for PFBA in drinking water.
Other labs in other states already had this capability. But Kelly said it was important that the Health Department create its own test, so the agency could be confident in the results.
"Could it have been done at another laboratory? Possibly. But I don't know that. I think the main goal was for us to develop the capability to be able to do it ourselves," Kelly said.
The process of developing that test took several more months. By early 2006 the agency had a preliminary test. But Kelly says they had to experiment with it to make sure it worked.
Health Department staff tried out the test on some water samples already in their possession from Oakdale and Lake Elmo. Those samples tested positive for PFBA.
By this point, a year had passed since Oliaei had taken her findings to the Health Department.
Based on those results, the department scheduled a much bigger round of well testing. That took place several months later in the summer of 2006. It was a busy time for the agency. Officials point out that they were also occupied with relocating to a new building.
By the fall, when the first well test results came back, it was clear that PFBA had spread throughout Oakdale and Lake Elmo. But the contamination zone, what scientists call a plume, would actually turn out to be much bigger than that.
More well tests revealed the plume covers an area about 16 square miles. It stretches south beyond Interstate 94 into Woodbury, where it had gotten into the drinking water of thousands of additional residents.
PUBLIC LEARNS OF NEW CONTAMINATION
In January 2007, the Health Department went public with its PFBA findings. Officials said the drinking water of an estimated 143,000 residents contains PFBA. PFBA contamination has also been detected in Cottage Grove, South St. Paul, St. Paul Park, Newport, and Hastings.
The Health Department isn't completely sure, but department scientists suspect a 3M-owned landfill on the Cottage Grove-Woodbury border is the source of this contamination.
"They just all seem to be acting like they're trying to cover their tracks rather than getting us any good information."
In the case of Woodbury, along with Oakdale and Lake Elmo, the Health Department believes that PFCs from two dumps contaminated their drinking water.
The Health Department's Rita Messing says one of the dumps is a former 3M landfill in Oakdale. The other is the Washington County Landfill, the one where former MPCA scientist Fardin Oliaei's tests first detected PFBA in 2005.
"It's a long way away from the Woodbury wells, but it certainly is at this point the most likely source of the contamination. That doesn't mean that it is the source. But it is certainly the strongest possibility that we know of right now," Messing said.
Even in hindsight, Messing says this knowledge wouldn't necessarily change how she thinks the agency should have conducted its well investigations. From her perspective, agency staff moved as quickly as they could to test drinking water near the former PFC dumpsites.
State Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach says she was not aware of her agency's decisions on the testing, including the timeline and the process the department followed to create its own test for PFBA. But she says she fully supports her staff's decisions in the matter.
RESIDENTS WONDER WHAT TOOK SO LONG
The Health Department's explanation of its investigation doesn't sit so well with some east metro residents.
"It's frustrating. I mean, in that time our daughter was born," said Jennifer Dailey, who lives in Cottage Grove. Cottage Grove has some of the highest levels of PFBA in the Health Department tests.
"After they first had a hint of it (in 2005), then our daughter was born and then we used the water for a year in formula with her. If they had perhaps acted a little quicker, then we would have made changes in our behavior more quickly," Dailey said.
As soon as the Daileys learned about the PFBA in their drinking water this past January, Jennifer and her husband Stephen stopped giving tap water to their 2-year-old daughter, Ana. They're using bottled water instead, until they learn more about the risks of PFBA.
The change has gone unnoticed by Ana, who is more concerned about making sure that whatever she drinks is served in her favorite blue and green cup, which is decorated with fish decals.
Jennifer Dailey says she's not angry at the Health Department. But she does think the agency doesn't have its priorities in the right place.
"They just all seem to be acting like they're trying to cover their tracks rather than getting us any good information," she said.
The Health Department has essentially left it up to residents to decide whether or not their own water is safe enough to drink.
The department issued a well advisory saying that anything below 1 part per billion is considered safe. But in Cottage Grove, several wells exceed that limit. The agency hasn't said those wells are unsafe, but it has suggested if residents are worried they can switch to bottled water or install a carbon filter.
Dailey says that's just not helpful.
"It's kind of like with the ... terrorist warning, and it's yellow, but no one will tell us what does that mean or what should we do. It's just kind of a vague thing coming from the government. I guess we just expected more from them," Dailey said.
IS THE WATER SAFE OR NOT?
Remarks made by 3M company officials may have contributed to the confusion of residents like Jennifer Dailey.
On March 6, 2007, company scientists told members of a legislative committee that it's safe to drink the water in communities with PFBA because the levels are very low. 3M based its conclusion in part on its own findings from a 28-day study on rats.
3M Medical Director Dr. Larry Zobel oversaw the study. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio News following the hearing, he repeated the company's conclusion that a person would have to drink hundreds thousands of glasses of water a day to detect any effects from PFBA.
Besides the short-term rat study, Zobel says 3M has nearly 1,500 other studies on similar PFC compounds that support the company's position.
"I have no qualms at all about drinking the water in south Washington County -- me, my family or any residents there," Zobel said.
The Health Department hasn't refuted 3M's safety claim. But Zobel's comments clearly make some agency officials uncomfortable.
"It's a little dangerous to make that kind of a statement," said the department's John Linc Stine.
Stine is director of the Health Department's Environmental Health Division. He was in the audience when Zobel testified about the safety of east metro water. Stine says there's simply not enough research on PFBA to know that.
"Am I going to say the water's safe to drink? No. I am not going to ever say specifically that. I'm going to say everyone's different, and it's a personal decision at what level you're willing to accept risk," said Stine.
"We believe that below 1 part per billion, there's no risk with drinking the water. Above that, people should make informed decisions about what risk they are willing to live with, in the face of the uncertainty that we've communicated. I wish I could be more certain with people about the risk. But at this time we can't," Stine said.
MPR later conveyed Stine's comments to 3M's Larry Zobel.
"Well, I guess I would obviously disagree with that," Zobel responded. "I think reassuring people about their water supply is a good thing to do when you feel you have the information to reassure people about their water supply."
3M chose not to participate in any of the six public Health Department meetings designed to explain the PFBA situation in February. John Linc Stine did. He and his staff got an earful from many frustrated residents. Stine only arrived at the Health Department about a year ago.
During an interview with Minnesota Public Radio News, the strain of dealing with the PFBA contamination problem became evident. At one point, Stine's voice broke and tears came to his eyes.
"It's very challenging from the inside perspective of knowing that your communications are not what people want. It's hard to be a government employee, we know who pays our salary, it's the people of this state," Stine said. "I want to provide the public with the best answers I can. It's frustrating when you try to do that, and there's not enough, not enough data -- there's not enough time sometimes."
The reality is that the toxicity of PFBA will likely take a long time to figure out. Minnesota Department of Health officials say they hope to have enough information by the end of the year to establish an official Health Based Value for the chemical, so residents know what level of exposure is safe.
But there's a good chance the science will take longer than that, leaving thousands of east metro residents with more questions than answers.
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