Bills regulating toxic chemicals attract high-priced lobbyists

Chemical companies say the ban is too broad and duplicates federal action

By: - March 1, 2023 6:01 am

3M still manufactures PFAS chemical compounds in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, as well as Illinois, Alabama, Belgium and Germany, but has vowed to stop making them or using them in products by 2025. Photo by Chad Davis

The state that helped birth the so-called forever chemicals that have polluted water and soil around the world is now home to a heavyweight lobbying battle, with a bevy of multi-billion dollar industries fighting to protect their use of the toxic chemicals. 

Members of a Minnesota House environment committee recently received correspondence with a letterhead that featured the logos of over 50 companies and trade associations opposed to a bill that would ban the chemicals in most products. 

Chemical companies such as DuPont, Arkema and Chemours and trade groups such as the American Chemistry Council (of which 3M is a member) plastered their logos across the top of the letter opposing the bill, which would be one of the nation’s toughest bans on products containing a family of toxic chemicals called PFAS. Maine passed a similar law in 2021. 

“It would be one of the broadest bans on products containing PFAS in the nation and would have far reaching negative consequences on nearly every sector of the economy including aerospace, autos, powersports, alternative energy, health care, building and construction, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture,” the companies and trade groups warned in their letter.

The industry has a history of using its lobbying muscle to fight regulations that could cut into profits. Even in a year when Republicans controlled the Minnesota Senate, the American Chemistry Council and 3M spent over a quarter-million dollars lobbying Minnesota lawmakers in 2021, the most recently available data from the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. 

The chemical industry spent almost $66 million lobbying Congress in 2022, according to The seven largest PFAS producers and their trade groups spent at least $61 million in 2019 and 2020, largely to successfully lobby Congress and the Trump administration against PFAS legislation and rules, according to The Guardian. They focused on killing proposals to force them to cover the cost of cleaning up widespread PFAS pollution, the Guardian reported. 

Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, said his bill (HF1000) has drawn heavy opposition from D.C. lobbyists.

Avonna Starck, state director of Clean Water Action, said she and her allies are up against it.

“The chemical lobby is hitting Minnesota lawmakers hard,” she said. “We also have to be really loud because the high-paid lobbyists that are being flown in are loud.”

Brand and his Democratic-Farmer-Labor colleagues are joined by environmentalists and local clean water advocates, who point to increasing evidence of harmful effects of the chemicals — which have been locally made by 3M since the 1950s — on land, wildlife, water and human health. 

The bill would require manufacturers to notify the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency if their products have “intentionally added” PFAS, beginning in 2025, and bans products that contain the toxic chemicals from being sold or distributed. The bill exempts “essential” products that can’t be made without PFAS, such as medical devices and airplanes. Numerous other industries have asked that their products be exempted, too.

The chemicals — invented by Maplewood-based 3M — have spread all over the planet, and can now be found in the blood of nearly all people. They’ve been linked to low fertility, birth defects, suppression of the immune system, thyroid disease and cancer.

Brand’s bill was advanced to the commerce committee, whose chair, Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, who said in an email he supports the bill and will schedule a hearing on it “likely soon.”

Industries that use the chemicals and their trade groups say the bill is too broad, treats all PFAS the same, duplicates federal efforts to require disclosure of chemicals and would create a patchwork of laws.

The Consumer Technology Association asked that electronics manufacturers be excluded, saying the reporting requirements would be an administrative burden.

“Our industry is comprised of a complex global supply chain that would make it near impossible to comply with the law as written,” the trade association wrote to lawmakers.

A print industry trade group said such a law would have far-reaching negative consequences on nearly every sector of the economy, including aerospace, autos, alternative energy, health care, construction, electronics, pharmaceuticals and agriculture. 

“Maine has taken a similar approach and it has created compliance nightmares for impacted industries,” the group wrote.

The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (meaning: the makers of baby products like strollers and toys) said the bill is modeled after what it called a “flawed” law in Maine, which has been forced to grant over 2,000 extensions to companies due to lack of testing capacity and the complexity of supply chains. 

The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers said the bill’s broad class of PFAS includes some 10,000 substances, which should not be treated as a single class.

“Gathering detailed information on any given chemical, let alone a chemical class as broad as PFAS, is extremely difficult even for one given year,” the trade group said.

The Household and Commercial Products Association wrote that the bill defines PFAS too broadly and duplicates a federal reporting program. The group noted that last year, California’s governor vetoed similar legislation in part because the EPA is working on similar reporting rules.

For their part, environmental activists brought some pizazz to the table recently. Last week, actor and activist Mark Ruffalo and environmental attorney Robert Bilott — who was depicted by Ruffalo in a the 2019 movie “Dark Waters” about chemical contamination in West Virginia — called on the Biden administration to live up to a campaign promise to crack down on the chemicals.

Actor Mark Ruffalo called on the Biden administration to live up to campaign promises to crack down on PFAS chemicals. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer

In August, the EPA proposed designating the two most common types of PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, which would spark federal cleanup standards and could put chemical companies on the hook for billions in cleanup costs. 

The EPA published new drinking water health advisories for several chemical compounds at near-zero levels, and the agency said it would propose national drinking water regulations for PFAS by last fall. That hasn’t happened yet.

“Mr. President: Don’t let the polluters win,” Ruffalo said during a press briefing by the Environmental Working Group. “They’ve made billions…  they’ve made their American dream come true and now the rest of us are living in a nightmare.”

As states step in and try to regulate the chemicals, Bilott said companies are fighting them, which he called shocking.

“These companies are suing the states trying to stop them from enforcing these standards… and frankly, just continue to deny responsibility for the damage that’s been caused for decades.”

3M is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of the chemicals, but announced in late December that it would stop making them. Other companies will continue making them. The move came amid pressure by European investors on companies to stop producing the chemicals, according to The Guardian

3M has been hit with an avalanche of lawsuits that could cost the company up to $30 billion by one estimate. The state of Minnesota and 3M settled a lawsuit in 2018, with 3M agreeing to pay $850 million.

Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, said the settlement won’t be enough to clean up the contamination. She represents the Lake Elmo area, which was contaminated after 3M dumped its waste in several Washington County landfills, where the chemicals leached into groundwater. That resulted in a 200-square-mile underground contaminated plume. Seeberger has “big filters” for her own well water, she said.

Lake Elmo, Seeberger said, is in an “emergency situation” and needs to “find a clean aquifer” to provide clean water to the city that was the state’s fastest growing in 2020-2021.

“We are in a crisis right now,” Seeberger said of Lake Elmo.

She sponsored a bill to ban PFAS in firefighting foam, and is getting pushback from oil refineries and airports. Seeberger said she’s willing to listen to their concerns, but she added: “My bottom line is preventing introducing any more of this crap. There’s already way too much out there.”

Seeberger said the bills have a good chance at passage: “This should not be a partisan issue. I can’t imagine why someone would stand up and say ‘No, we need more PFAS.’ ”

3M has not taken a position on HF1000, but has said it supports PFAS regulation based on the “best available science and established regulatory processes,” but the regulations should be crafted carefully “to meet regulatory objectives and help maintain the availability of important products that are made with PFAS.”

Andrea Lovoll, legislative director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the opposition isn’t just from D.C. — it’s international.

“It all started here in Minnesota,” Lovoll said Sunday during a Coon Rapids town hall. “And so that is why it’s really critical that we act here in Minnesota.” 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.