Oakdale Drinking Water Contamination
The Star Tribune reported in September 2020 that Oakdale, Minnesota residents who drank water contaminated with PFAS “forever chemicals” experienced increased rates of infertility, premature births, and low birth weights. According to the findings, for the past few years, babies in Oakdale were 35% more likely to weigh less than 5.5 pounds at birth, nearly 45% were more likely to be born before 32 weeks gestation, and the general fertility rate was 15-25% lower compared to communities where water was not contaminated with PFAS chemicals.
What are Forever Chemicals?
PFAS is short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This grouping of more than 5,000 man-made chemicals are known as ‘forever chemicals’ as a result of the substantial amount of time required for these chemicals to break down in the environment.
PFAS chemicals are identified by their fluorine and carbon bonds which are very difficult to break–leading to the extremely long amount of time it takes for these chemicals to disintegrate. PFAS chemicals have been used in multiple industries since the 1940s due to their ability to repel oil and water. They can be found in Teflon nonstick products, polishes, waxes, clothing, stain and water repellants, paints, cleaning products, food packaging, and firefighting foams.
How Did PFAS Chemicals Contaminate the Water?
The 3M- Oakdale Disposal Site (sometimes called Oakdale or Granada Dump) is located along Old Hwy 5 / County Road 14 in Oakdale–just west of Interstate 694. The disposal site consists of three old chemical waste dump sites (Abresch, Brockman, and Eberle) used during the late 1940s through 1950s for waste burial (including PFAS chemicals), drum reclamation, and the open burning of combustible materials. As a result, ground, surface water, and soil contamination occurred at this site. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) first investigated the 3M- Oakdale Disposal site in 1980 and discovered a variety of hazardous substances were present there–especially volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and PFAS chemicals.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the waste containing PFAS chemicals that was disposed of in the 3M- Oakdale Disposal Site and former Washington County Landfill seeped into the groundwater and entered Raleigh Creek, which flows from the Oakdale Disposal Site into the city of Lake Elmo. The contaminated water was then discharged to Eagle Point Lake in the Lake Elmo Park Reserve. PFAS chemicals have now been detected in one private well in Oakdale, approximately 300 private wells in Lake Elmo, and one of Lake Elmo’s municipal wells. PFAS chemicals originating primarily from the 3M- Oakdale Disposal Site have been detected in most of the Oakdale municipal wells. In 2006, 3M funded the construction of a water treatment plant for Oakdale’s primary municipal water wells in addition to funding the installation of a new city well outside of the contaminated area in addition to continued clean-up efforts in both Lake Elmo and Oakdale.
What Is Being Done About This?
Peer-reviewed research published in April 2020 in the scientific journal Environmental Health highlighted the causal link between the chemicals and the adverse reproductive impacts. Philippe Grandjean, the leading chemicals researcher at Harvard University, explained that the Washington County suburb has become a “natural experiment” due to the fact that there have been measurable differences in health outcomes before and after the water treatment facility was installed in 2006 to remove the PFAS chemicals from the municipal water supply.
Former Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson believes that the scientific links between the PFAS contamination caused by 3M and the adverse health effects “will be used in litigation that has been filed and is going to be filed, not just here but in other countries as well.” Swanson successfully sued 3M in 2018, resulting in an $850 million settlement for environmental damages.
New research conducted by David Sunding, a natural resources economist at the University of California-Berkeley, was used during the 2018 3M trial in which Sunding was called as an expert witness. The findings showed that from 2001 to 2006, Oakdale mothers exposed to PFAS-contaminated drinking water were 34% more likely to deliver premature babies compared with county mothers who did not drink the contaminated water. Sunding said, “I was always confident in the result–they practically jumped off the screen from the first time we ran the model–and I swore so in my testimony for the [attorney general].”
However, the Minnesota Department of Health stands by its 2018 conclusions that there was not an unusual increase in low birth weights or premature births in Washington County. Jessie Shmool, the Department of Health epidemiologist who coordinated the state’s analysis, said the state used more detailed data over more time points than the studies cited by Swanson’s team.
Lawsuits Against 3M
In September 2020, 3M was sued over ‘forever chemicals’ pollution by the Hopatcong Borough in New Jersey. The federal lawsuit alleges that 3M concealed risks posed by the forever chemicals that were manufactured by the company and that the company had known about the dangers associated with PFAS for years but withheld that information from consumers, government entities, and the public. The lawsuit also alleges that 3M manipulated scientific research on the chemicals, which led to the borough’s drinking water becoming more contaminated. The complaint alleged: “3M marketed and sold PFAS with the knowledge that PFAS would be released into the environment and without warning users or others of the risks of PFAS to the environment and to human health.”
The contamination likely occurred when 3M manufactured and marketed the toxic chemicals for use in the Garden State and the substances ended up contaminating the groundwater that supplies the Hopatcong Borough’s wells which serve approximately 7,000 people. Seven of the wells contain perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The levels of those PFAS in five of the wells exceed the “maximum contaminant levels” set by New Jersey regulators.
Complaint Alleges 3M Knew PFAS Chemicals are Toxic
The federal lawsuit includes counts for negligence, failure to warn, nuisance and trespassing. The borough is seeking funds for the investigation, treatment, remediation, and monitoring costs related to the contamination. The complaint claims, “3M knew or should have known that in their intended and/or common use, products containing PFAS would very likely injure and/or threaten public health and the environment in New Jersey.”
The complaint alleges that 3M concluded in the 1950s that PFAS are “toxic” based on internal studies and, by the early 1960s, 3M “understood that some PFAS are stable, persist in the environment, and that they do not degrade.” However, according to the complaint “despite the defendant’s specific knowledge of the dangers and serious harm that could result from the continued use, manufacture, marketing, and distribution of PFAS. Defendant failed to provide this information to federal or state regulators, the general public or plaintiff.”
After facing pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 3M started to phase out production of PFOS and PFOA products in 2000 before ceasing production in 2002. However, the Hopatcong Borough’s attorney said: “3M is responsible for contaminating the drinking water of the community served by my client, with the dangerous PFAS chemicals, for decades.”
In response, 3M stated that the company “acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend our record of environmental stewardship.”
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