3M Will Treat or Monitor Water Supplies for Thousands Under EPA Order

Nearly 300,000 residents connected to public water systems within 10 miles of a Cordova, Illinois, 3M factory will have their water tested for possible contamination as required by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA also will require 3M to test all private wells within three miles of the plant, which will affect an unknown number of people in the area. Some of the municipal systems to be tested include East Moline, Moline, and Rock Island in Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa.

The move comes after the EPA found that contamination of PFAS from the 3M plant created “an imminent and substantial endangerment” of drinking water supplies.

What Are Forever Chemicals? 

PFAS chemicals are widely used to make products resistant to oil, heat, stain, or water. They are found in everything from cosmetics to outdoor gear and non-stick pans. They are used to coat paper and cardboard wrappers for fast food and bakery goods. They are also found in stain-resistant furniture and carpets treated with stain- and water-repellant chemicals.

PFAS, which are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are known as “forever chemicals” because they build up in humans and do not break down in the environment. Small doses of PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases.

The 3M testing requirement is part of an EPA administrative order and comes as the agency is accelerating its response to PFAS. 3M developed the compounds and uses them in products like the water and stain protector Scotchgard.

The company’s Cordova plant is located on the Mississippi River, as are many of its other factories. The Cordova plant was allowed to discharge wastewater into the river by the EPA, with a requirement to monitor PFAS levels. But in 2019, the company told the agency it was releasing more of the chemicals than it had previously reported.

“Communities have suffered far too long from exposure to these chemicals,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. “This settlement is a critical step forward in our work to protect communities from pollution and hold polluters accountable for their actions.”

3M, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, started as a small mining venture in Northern Minnesota called Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. The multinational Fortune 500 company manufactures industrial, safety, and consumer products.

3M Reaches Agreement with EPA

John Banovetz, a 3M executive vice president, said that the agreement with the EPA “demonstrates the positive impact that engagement between regulators and 3M can have for communities, and we appreciate the EPA’s work to reach this milestone.”

3M spokesman Grant Thompson declined to say how much the testing and treatment would cost the company. When those numbers were “probable and reasonably estimable,” they would be shared in investor filings, he wrote in an email to Northern Public Radio.

“3M has, and will continue to, share these in filings with the [Securities and Exchange Commission] and related communications with investors and the public,” Thompson wrote.

David Cwiertny, a University of Iowa engineering professor and director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, said he is glad 3M is being held accountable for PFAS in drinking water around their Cordova plant.

“These folks are unfortunate to be very near a 3M facility, but at least we’re helping them,” Cwiertny told Northern Public Radio. But he wonders where else there might be similar contamination.

“The only way you can try to get your hands around a problem is to figure out where the chemicals were used and where they are coming from,” he said.

The company was independently testing some of the water sources around Cordova as early as July and offering treatment through granulated activated carbon filters.

3M Contaminated Groundwater

3M also was found to have contaminated groundwater with the same class of chemicals in the area around its Cottage Grove plant in the East Metro in the Twin Cities.

About 150 square miles in Washington County are covered by a plume of PFAS-tainted groundwater, affecting about 170,000 people in Washington County. The state of Minnesota settled with the company for $850 million. Those funds are being used for water quality projects.

Lori Swanson, who was Minnesota’s attorney general from 2007 to 2019, litigated the case. She said that when Minnesota sued in 2010, the EPA had little interest in the chemicals.

“They were not involved, and I think there has been an evolution on the part of the EPA,” said Swanson, now an attorney in private practice. “Nowadays they certainly seem more aggressive.”

EPA published its first drinking water notice on the chemicals in 2016. Since Regan was confirmed as administrator last year, the agency has pledged to establish enforceable PFAS drinking water standards for the first time and classified two chemicals as hazardous under the law governing Superfund cleanup sites.

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