Met Council considers legal options against 3M over chemical discharge

3M plant on the bluffs
The 3M production facility in Cottage Grove is situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The company has used these grounds for years as a disposal site for chemical compounds, which are contaminating the river.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

The Metropolitan Council has formally asked its lawyers to explore legal options against 3M related to millions of dollars in costs of meeting new state requirements for discharging perfluorinated chemicals from wastewater treatment plants into the environment.

The state regulation limits the amount of a perfluorinated chemical known as PFOS that can be discharged from wastewater treatment plants. State researchers have found that the plants contribute to contamination in the Mississippi River, which has led to fish consumption advisories.

To comply with the regulation, the Met Council estimates it will need to spend $500 million to retrofit just one wastewater treatment plant, plus an additional $45 million in operating costs. That could lead to a 35 percent rate increase, Met Council staff said.

However, the Met Council, which oversees waste water plants in the metro area that send water into the Mississippi River, said that 3M should pay for some or all of the costs because 3M's practices led to the state regulation. 3M made and used PFOS and other perfluorinated chemicals at its manufacturing plant in Cottage Grove. The state of Minnesota is already suing 3M for damage to the environment.

Met Council members were briefed Wednesday evening about the status of the lawsuit and decided to explore its legal options. Met Council chairwoman Susan Haigh said the council may decide to join the state's lawsuit or pursue separate legal action.

"Trying to determine exactly how we'll intervene is something we're going to spend a little bit more time pursuing, but we had a full briefing on the issue and have been authorized to move forward to make sure we're protecting the interest of all the ratepayers who pay for wastewater treatment services in the metropolitan area," Haigh said.

3M was once the sole producer of PFCs, but halted their use and production in 2002 after the compounds turned up in the blood samples of workers.

Metro wastewater treatment plant
The Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 12, 2011. The plant treats millions of gallons of wastewater from the metro area each year, and discharges the treated water into the Mississippi River.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

3M spokesman Bill Nelson said the company won't comment until it's officially notified of the Met Council's plans. Nelson noted that 3M has stopped making and using perfluorochemicals and that other manufacturers are still using the materials. As a result, he said, "products based on those chemistries do find their way into Minnesota and into our waste stream."

Perfluorinated chemicals are found throughout the environment and are used by industries and in household products. Ultimately they find their way to wastewater treatment plants, and in the Twin Cities metro area, end up in the Mississippi River. The chemicals build up in the tissues of humans and fish.

Researchers are beginning to understand the risks posed by these chemicals, which are suspected of being carcinogenic.

The high level of perfluorinated chemicals in the section of the Mississippi River between the Ford Dam and Hastings, referred to as Pool 2, led the Minnesota Department of Health to issue a fish consumption advisory.

The state regulations are being proposed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Katrina Kessler, supervisor of the MPCA's effluent unit, said the federal Clean Water Act requires that the state clean up impaired waters like the Mississippi River.

That led the MPCA to propose strict limits to perfluorinated chemicals in two of the Met Council's wastewater treatment plants — the Metro plant near downtown St. Paul and the Eagles Point plant near Cottage Grove.

Met Council members were told by their staff at a meeting last April that the wastewater treatment plants aren't causing the problem. Instead, staffers placed the blame on 3M's industrial operations in the east metro, including a plant situated on the Mississippi River in Cottage Grove. Two landfills near the plant also contribute to the contamination.

That plant, the former Chemolite plant, was once at the center of 3M's Scotchgard and other perfluorochemical operations.

Even if the Met Council decides to join the state's lawsuit, it likely will not change the proposed regulations.

Overall, Minnesota appears to be leading the country in responding to the challenges posed by PFCs.

University of Minnesota researcher Matt Simcik said it makes sense to confront PFC contamination from wastewater treatment plants because so many household products still contain the chemicals. And, he notes, plants are not designed to remove the chemicals from the water.

"If the source of these is everyday items, then certainly the rest of the country may want to look at Minnesota and see what we're doing because they potentially could have similar issues," he said.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.