By BILL McAULIFFE, Star Tribune
Last update: June 17, 2009 - 3:52 PM
A Washington County jury has returned a unanimous verdict in favor of the 3M Co., awarding no damages to three homeowners who'd claimed their property values had been diminished by 3M chemicals in their well water.
The decision was an abrupt end to a lawsuit that began more than four years ago and led to 19 days of trial arguments.
3M Co. spokesman Bill Nelson said the company was pleased that the jury of six women and three men evidently agreed that the company had behaved within the law and by what was known scientifically about perfluorochemicals, which 3M manufactured from the mid-1950s until early this decade and and dumped in four east metro sites until the mid-1970s.
The company has spent nearly $15 million in cleanups and on water-supply alternatives in Woodbury, Lake Elmo and Cottage Grove, and is involved in continuing work that could cost another $50 million.
"The company remains committed to its cleanup at at the four sites in Washington County," Nelson said, adding that it has also instituted reviews of the environmental impacts of chemicals in their development, manufacture, sale and disposal.
The homeowners said their property values declined by 15 percent because of water contamination and were seeking more than $200,000 from the Maplewood firm, in addition to other damages.
The chemicals have been used in hundreds of products that resist water and grease, including Scotchgard, firefighting foam, computer chips and nonstick cookware. 3M stopped production early this decade.
But David Byrne, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued in court Tuesday that 3M had developed sophisticated detecting abilities, even seeking out a human control group in China in the 1970s, long before state regulators began establishing health and exposure standards in the 1990s. The company didn't let officials know what it knew, Byrne argued.
"They were playing games with regulators and playing games with serious chemicals in the environment," he said.
The case hinged on whether 3M knew the chemicals it was dumping were likely to spread through groundwater, or intended to have them invade the plaintiffs' properties. Both are elements of trespass under Minnesota law, which the plaintiffs argue 3M committed.
3M made the chemicals at its Cottage Grove plant from about 1950 to 2002 and disposed of waste there and at dumps in Lake Elmo, Oakdale and Woodbury from 1956 to 1975. Groundwater beneath each site has been tainted, and has spread to surrounding areas.
In many cases the concentrations are at trace levels that health experts consider safe. In others, 3M paid for residents, including more than 200 Lake Elmo homeowners who had private wells, to be hooked up to city water.
The plaintiffs include one couple who received city water from Oakdale and two individuals who had private wells in Lake Elmo. Tests in 2005 showed their water was contaminated. All were given bottled water or filters and were later connected to Lake Elmo's expanded water system.
Washington County District Judge Mary Hannon denied the plaintiffs' motion in 2007 to certify the case as a class-action proceeding involving many more residents. The case was further narrowed in recent months when Hannon dismissed their claims of nuisance and personal injury.
The case was essentially a property value case. Ruling on a 3M Co. motion Tuesday, Hannon agreed to instruct the jury that the plaintiffs' claims of exposure to the chemicals in drinking water have nothing to do with property values.
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646