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Whistleblower: State didn't get enough money in 3M deal on water pollution

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3M in St. Paul, Minn.
Fardin Oliaei did the original research on the 3M chemicals that contaminated water in the east metro. With Minnesota's lawsuit in the case settled, she reflects on the trials of the past 17 years.
Marlin Levison | Star Tribune via AP

As attorneys for the state and 3M celebrated a settlement in Minnesota's lawsuit over chemical contamination of groundwater by the multinational corporation, Fardin Oliaei was on the verge of tears. 

It should have been a moment of redemption for the former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency scientist whose research was rejected by a former boss. But her emotions are mixed talking about her history with perfluorochemical, or PFC, research and the impact it had on her life and career.

It was Oliaei's research that first raised the alarm over perfluorochemical contamination when she was a scientist at the agency. She first discovered the PFCs in fish from from Voyageur's National Park in northern Minnesota. 

This would be the first independent study to show the chemicals were spreading in the environment in Minnesota. She would later detect PFCs in samples of fish taken from the Mississippi River.

Minnesota initially sued 3M for $5 billion in damages for contaminating the groundwater of tens of thousands of east metro residents. On Tuesday, the state settled for $850 million.

While state officials cheered the size settlement and benefits to residents in east metro, Oliaei believes it may be too small.                                                  "It's a bit disappointing," Oliaei told MPR News in an interview Friday. "I believe that it is not enough to correct or remediate the problems that have been created over the last 50 years."

Fardin Oliaei
Fardin Oliaei
Mike Edgerly | MPR News file

It's not just the size of the settlement that disappoints her. It's the knowledge that her work that provided the foundation for the suit has largely been ignored.

She wasn't on the witness list for the trial that never began. 

"I was hoping that I would be more recognized as someone who started this work. Not me but my work," she said. 

Having her work ignored is nothing new for Oliaei. Some 17 years ago, when she discovered PFCs in fish, the head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was not interested and in fact stopped her from following up. 

Oliaei wanted to trace the contaminants from their source — most likely 3M — through wastewater treatment plants, sewage sludge, sediment, and finally to fish and humans. Her requests would be repeatedly denied by MPCA middle managers.

She also discovered another 3M PFC in east metro drinking water, and she informed the Health Department. It was nearly a year later before the health department began to inform residents.

Then-MPCA commissioner Sheryl Corrigan — a former 3M employee — tried to quash Oliaei's work into so-called emerging contaminants. Corrigan, in attempting to explain why Oliaei's work was not needed,  said the MPCA is not "a research institution."

3M stopped manufacturing two types of PFCs, PFOA and PFOS, in 2002. It had been using the compounds in products like Scotchgard and non-stick cookware.

While Oliaei was going against "the machinery of the state," she said, she was hired to protect Minnesotans and she wouldn't back down. 

"I didn't know the influence of 3M to the point of being so destructive and controlling the whole thing," she said. But the work, "was like a light, a path for me, and I couldn't be distracted with fear."

In 2005 Oliaei shared her research with MPR News reporters. After she went public with those test results on PFCs, she felt like she was being forced to resign over her work.

She resigned Feb. 2, 2006. 

After that, her career stalled. She sold her house and moved to Boston to attend the Harvard's Kennedy School.

For Oliaei — an Iran native who moved to the U.S. just before her home country's 1978 revolution — having to leave Minnesota brought on physical, emotional and financial stress.

She still misses it here, despite the feeling that her work was ignored in the final stages of Minnesota's biggest environmental lawsuit of all time. 

"After leaving Iran, Minnesota was a homeland."