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May 12, 2009 - Homeowners Say 3M Chemicals Have Devalued Property

Three east metro households claimed Monday in a Washington County courtroom that their property values declined by 15 percent because of water contamination from old 3M chemicals.

Addressing jurors on the first day of the trial stemming from a lawsuit against 3M Co., attorneys for the homeowners said they will seek a total of more than $200,000 from the Maplewood firm, in addition to other damages.

"The fact that they must disclose [contamination] to potential buyers has the effect of driving down property values," a homeowner's attorney said.

A homeowner's attorney and a 3M attorney presented vastly different profiles of the company in their opening statements.

A homeowner's attorney said 3M scientists knew by the early 1970s that the chemicals would pollute groundwater, but did not inform state and federal authorities about it or about later discoveries that the compounds persist in the environment and accumulate in human blood.

"They knew what they should do to dispose of these materials, but they cut corners to save the bottom line," she said.

A 3M attorney countered that when 3M first made the chemicals, there were few pollution laws, no requirements to keep shipping records and no sophisticated analytical methods to detect the compounds. He said 3M has hundreds of reports, studies and letters showing that it "acted ahead of the curve" in learning about the compounds and "a long history of transparency, of reporting and of communication" to health and pollution officials.

No one disputes that 3M made the chemicals at its Cottage Grove plant from about 1950 to 2002 and disposed of waste there and at three dumps in Lake Elmo, Oakdale and Woodbury from 1956 to 1975. Ground water 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 to be 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 compounds, called perfluorochemicals, have been used in hundreds of products that resist water and grease, including Scotchgard, firefighting foam, computer chips and nonstick cookware.

The lawsuit against 3M seeks punitive damages for negligence and continuing trespass. It includes one couple who received city water from Oakdale and two individuals who had private wells in Lake Elmo. Tests in 2005 showed that their water was contaminated. All were given bottled water or filters and were later connected to Lake Elmo's expanded water system.

The lawsuit applies only to the four individuals. Washington County District Judge Mary Hannon denied the plaintiffs' motion in 2007 to certify the case as a class-action proceeding that would have involved many more residents. The case was further narrowed in recent months when Hannon dismissed their claims of nuisance and personal injury.

Jurors are likely to get a large dose of history in the trial, with testimony from retired 3M and state pollution managers and documents that go back to the early 1950s. The trial is expected to last until early July.

Tom Meersman --612-673-7388 To see more of the Star Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.startribune.com/. Copyright (c) 2009, Star Tribune, Minneapolis Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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