Bill would allow people to seek medical monitoring due to chemical exposure
Minnesota law stymied a 2004 lawsuit against 3M over chemical contamination of groundwater
Sprinklers spray water over the grass on 3M’s Maplewood headquarters Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer
A bill has been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature that would allow Minnesotans exposed to toxic substances to sue the responsible companies for the cost of monitoring their health.
Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, and Sen. Tou Xiong, DFL-Maplewood, introduced the legislation (HF2794/SF2727), which would apply to people who aren’t sick and allows their legal fees to be reimbursed. People who are sick have other legal remedies.
The bill is aimed at the likes of 3M, which has avoided major litigation from Minnesotans despite contaminating water supplies in the East Metro with a class of chemicals known as PFAS, which are used widely in industrial and consumer products.
The state of Minnesota settled a lawsuit with 3M in 2018 for $850 million, with the money going to provide clean water to affected East Metro communities. But Minnesotans who believe they’ve been sickened by 3M chemicals have been stymied by a lack of medical monitoring, which could detect whether the contamination is affecting their health.
Brand said the bill still needs a fiscal note, which is the required government analysis of how much a new law would cost taxpayers — and it may be too late for a committee hearing this session.
Jay Eidsness, staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the bill is unique in allowing people to make a claim even if they’re not sick. The bill would give some relief to East Metro residents “living under a cloud of uncertainty,” Eidsness said.
The bill is patterned after a first-of-its-kind Vermont law. Courts in about 16 states have recognized the right to seek medical monitoring, but Vermont’s law marked the first time a state put that right in statute, leaving no question that people could seek reimbursement of costs, according to Safer States, a national alliance of environmental health organizations.
Vermont lawmakers pushed for the law after a now-shuttered Bennington plastics factory contaminated 8,000 residents’ drinking water, leading to a $34 million class action settlement that included a $6 million medical monitoring fund.
Xiong went to Tartan High School in Oakdale from 2004 to 2008, and recalls cancer being commonplace at the school. Several THS graduates have been lobbying for bills that will more strictly regulate the chemicals made by 3M — whose headquarters is next door to Oakdale — in Maplewood.
Xiong remembers when state health officials announced in 2005 that 3M chemicals were detected in five Oakdale city water wells. The state health department had begun testing the city’s water for 3M chemicals, which are used in numerous products to repel heat, stains, water, oil and grease. The chemicals have been detected across the globe, contaminating wildlife, people and the environment.
For decades, 3M dumped its chemical waste into a number of unlined Washington County landfills, polluting 200 square miles of groundwater and four aquifers that provide drinking water for thousands of residents.
One of the disposal sites was in Oakdale. It was bought by 3M and designated a Superfund cleanup site in 1985 after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found solvents in shallow private wells. Residents then connected to the city’s water system, but chemicals were later found in the city’s water wells, groundwater and soil.
3M and Oakdale began filtering the water in 2006. A 2018 report by the state health department found elevated rates of childhood cancer in Oakdale from 1999 to 2014, and 28% more cases of chronic lymphocytic leukemia in Washington County than the rest of the state from 1999 to 2013.
A group of people east of the Twin Cities sued the company in 2004. Attorneys who were involved in the lawsuit say Brand and Xiong’s bill is a good first step.
After attorney Robert Bilott secured a landmark class action settlement with DuPont in 2004 over pollution 3M-made chemicals caused near DuPont’s plant in West Virginia, he helped represent Washington County residents suing 3M to get clean water and medical monitoring. But they were stymied by Minnesota law, which doesn’t allow medical monitoring claims for people who aren’t sick.
That meant the lawsuit was narrowed to damage to property values and 3M’s handling of the chemicals. During the trial, lawyers weren’t even allowed to discuss whether the chemicals were harmful. In 2009, a jury decided in 3M’s favor.
The outcome was very different in West Virginia, where DuPont was required to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. The company also had to pay for an independent panel of scientists to study chemical impacts and monitor the health of thousands of West Virginians exposed to chemicals in drinking water. After seven years of study, the panel linked the chemicals to six diseases, including two types of cancer.
“Unfortunately, 3M has never really accepted that science and to this day dismisses any such causal connections between exposure to these chemicals and human health at all,” Bilott said in a November interview. “So it’s been difficult for others to be able to ever get compensated for the harms caused by their exposure because the company continues to dispute that science and oppose regulatory efforts relying upon that science.”
3M did not respond to a request for comment.
Last month, Bilott said during a press conference he’s monitoring the bills moving through Minnesota’s Legislature while pushing for medical monitoring nationwide. In 2018, he filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of anyone in the U.S. exposed to the chemicals made by 3M and other companies. He wants the companies to pay for a scientific panel to confirm how much harm the chemicals are causing.
In April, a judge certified the lawsuit to go forward for Ohioans, but the chemical companies are fighting expanding the class to all Americans.
“We’re trying to find ways to address these issues,” Bilott said, “but right now 3M is opposing those efforts everywhere across the country.”
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