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3M vs. Minnesota: A primer for this major water pollution trial

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The filtering system of a concerned east metro resident
Here, the water filtering system of Keith Rapp, who live in a neighborhood where 3M allegedly contaminated the groundwater with PFCs. Here's what you need to know as the trial begins.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News file

One of the biggest environmental lawsuits in United States history is getting underway in Minneapolis. 

It's pitting the state of Minnesota against the multinational company 3M. The state attorney general says 3M knowingly contaminated groundwater in the eastern Twin Cities metro area, putting residents at risk of cancer and infertility. 

The case could have major implications for environmental law across the nation. It's a complicated case that has been in the works for years, so here is a primer to get you up to speed.

What's this case all about?

In a word, perfluorochemicals, or PFCs.

3M discontinued production of PFOA and PFOS, but still makes other types of PFCs, according to the MPCA. It had used them in many products like Scotchgard stain repellent, nonstick cookware and firefighting foam. 

Up until the 1970s, 3M dumped the chemicals in landfills in the Twin Cities suburbs of Oakdale, Woodbury and Lake Elmo. Then, the chemicals leached into the groundwater.

Groundwater pollution in that area was first discovered in 2004, and Minnesota filed its first suit in 2010.

At certain levels, PFCs can pose human health risk. One of the issues in this case: Can the state prove that 3M dumped enough of the chemicals to cause problems?

What is the state of Minnesota alleging against 3M?

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson argues that 3M willfully disregarded the potential harm of PFCs on the environment and citizens before it stopped making the chemicals. 

The attorney general's lawsuit seeks $5 billion in damages. Minnesota has cited a University of California professor's study that found a 30 percent increase in low birth weights and premature births in Oakdale compared to surrounding communities between 2001 and 2016. Oakdale's fertility rate was about 16 percent lower, too. 

According to the state's lawsuit, 3M knew the chemicals it was dumping were highly risky to human health and the environment. 

The suit also says 3M held back critical information from the federal Environmental Protection Agency regarding its PFCs.

How does 3M respond?

The company has said Minnesota's suit is a "misguided attempt" to pay for damages that don't really exist. A report released earlier this month by the Minnesota Department of Health analyzed health data and found no unusual increase in rates of cancer and adverse birth outcomes in the area where the groundwater contamination occurred.

3M says those findings "undermine (if not destroy)" the state's claims. The company has already spent more than $100 million to clean up pollution in the Oakdale area.

Still, 3M says PFCs aren't at high enough levels to pose any health risk.  

What's at stake in the trial?

Aside from the $5 billion in damages, 3M's reputation is at stake. It has deep Minnesota roots, with its headquarters here, and it does more than $30 billion in annual sales.

The case could also set a national precedent, which is paramount for 3M — it faces at least 24 similar suits alleging it polluted groundwater. 

What will this case look like?

The trial begins Feb. 20 and will likely last four to six weeks. Both sides will bring in experts to testify whether the PFCs really caused health problems.

Correction (Feb. 21, 2018): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 3M ceased production of PFCs, instead of certain PFCs specifically. The story has been updated.