Although 3M has said it plans to stop making toxic chemicals that have polluted the world, the U.S. Department of Defense is so reliant upon them the company may not have a choice.
Minnesota Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, ranking member of the U.S. House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said until alternatives are found, the chemicals will need to continue to be used in microelectronic production, which has “national security implications.” And she suggested the federal government could require 3M to continue making the chemicals for essential uses under tightly controlled regulation, but she hopes that’s not necessary.
Semiconductors are used in thousands of products such as computers, smartphones, vehicles, appliances and medical equipment. They’re also used in military and national security technologies — including aircraft control systems and safety equipment — and drones, radar and command and control systems.
McCollum said the Defense Department should work with the Environmental Protection Agency to control the production of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, similar to how the federal government monitors the use of nuclear medicine, which uses radioactive substances. The Defense Department should work with a “responsible partner” like 3M to continue to make the chemicals under tight control, she said.
“We have to ensure, for our national security, chip manufacturing back here,” McCollum said in an interview. “We don’t want to be buying it anymore, but if we’re in a national security or national economic security crisis, until we get a replacement, I think every drop of PFAS has to be totally accounted for, and we need oversight and we need to work with the EPA on that.”
The EPA should work with a “responsible corporate partner” that takes the issue seriously and is “not just looking to make profits” off the chemicals, she said.
She cited 3M as an example of such a company — despite its well-documented history of ignoring, delaying, minimizing and obscuring its own scientific research that showed the chemicals were toxic and persistent — rather than “some outside actor” that’s trying to find alternatives or stop the manufacture of the chemicals.
There’s a shortage of semiconductors, and the U.S. has fallen behind the rest of the world in production, much of which is in unstable areas of the world. The Biden administration has pushed to bring chip production back to the U.S. Last year, President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, with nearly $53 billion to build semiconductor manufacturing facilities in the U.S.
McCollum said the U.S. and its allies need to bring supply chain control of chips back to the U.S.
“We’re all working on it and we need to work on it with great acceleration,” she said. “We need to do it responsibly, safely, with full transparency and accountability for now. But we need to put dollars into doing research so we can turn away from using PFAS as soon as possible.”
Maplewood-based 3M began making the chemicals in the 1940s in Cottage Grove, where it continues to make them today — as well as in plants in Illinois, Alabama, Belgium and Germany. They’ve been used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water, such as Scotchgard stain repellent, Teflon cookware, fast food wrapping and fire retardants.
But they build up in humans’ blood and organs and don’t break down in the environment — which is why they’ve been dubbed forever chemicals. They’ve caused global contamination to soil, water, air, people and wildlife.
Notre Dame physicist Graham Peaslee, who studies PFAS, said 3M is one of two U.S. companies and six worldwide that make the chemicals. As one of the world’s largest producers, the company has been the target of an avalanche of litigation and increasing shareholder and regulatory pressure. In December, it announced plans to exit the market by 2025.
McCollum said that concerned the DOD because the department knows it needs the chemicals until safe alternatives are developed.
3M released a statement saying it intends to “fulfill current contractual obligations during the transition period” as it leaves the market.
“We are committed to working with our customers, including the United States government, to help facilitate an orderly transition,” 3M said.
The chemicals are also used to create “ultra-pure environments” necessary for microchip manufacturing, according to the American Chemistry Council, a chemical company trade group of which 3M is a member.
McCollum said the U.S. Defense Production Act — which allows presidents to make private companies prioritize government needs — could come into play.
“I would like that not to happen,” she said. “I think we’ll get it worked out. I hope the Defense Production Act doesn’t need to come into play. But it needs to be done working hand in hand with the EPA standards and any PFAS that’s gonna be currently produced — I think we need to put tight controls on it, especially if the federal government is purchasing it.”
Funding has been allocated to the Defense Department to research and develop replacements for the chemicals, she said.
McCollum said she applauds 3M for announcing plans to stop making the chemicals for commercial use.
“There are so many other companies that haven’t even done an inch of what 3M has,” McCollum said. “Could they have done a better job on things? They absolutely could have.”
Peaslee said while he doesn’t view 3M as “the devil incarnate,” the sooner it gets out of the business, the less they’re going to be liable for damages. He said alternatives to the chemicals could be found, or companies could at least stop the chemicals from coming out in semiconductor plant waste.
“That would solve the problem,” he said.
3M said it has already reduced its use of PFAS over the past three years through research and development, and “will continue to innovate new solutions for customers.”
While chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, McCollum secured more than half a billion dollars in defense funding for PFAS, mostly for remediation and cleanup, and tens of millions of dollars for research on detection, destruction, and remediation technologies.
DOD records show PFAS has been found in the groundwater at nearly 400 military bases, with some recording the highest levels ever found, at over 1 million parts per trillion, far more than the EPA’s suggested safe level of less than 1 part per trillion, according to the Environmental Working Group.
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