The Minnesota House on Monday overwhelmingly approved a bill to manage the $725 million that state has left from a water contamination settlement with the 3M Co.
The settlement followed eight years of litigation over a former Scotchgard ingredient that got into the east metro’s drinking water. On Feb. 20, just as jury selection was getting under way for the long-awaited $5 billion lawsuit, state Attorney General Lori Swanson announced she had settled the case for $850 million.
Minus $125 million in lawyer’s contingency fees, the state has $725 million to administer as it works to clean up contamination from the main chemicals involved—PFOS and PFOA—as well as the entire class of perfluorinated compounds.
Under the settlement’s terms, 3M agreed to finance the cleanup of drinking water and to restore natural resources in affected areas.
House File 3660’s author, Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, told House members during floor debate Monday that the bill makes clean drinking water for residents the state’s top priority. Once that cleanup is done, money can be used to restore resources and rectify other environmental problems caused by decades of contamination, she said.
Only when all that is achieved can money get used to improve water quality elsewhere in the state, Fenton said. Those terms reflect the settlement, she said. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the DNR are the grant’s trustees.
“I wanted to respect what the attorneys and the judge and everybody had agreed upon,” Fenton told House members Monday.
Assuming the bill passes both chambers and is signed into law, money would become available immediately to treat contaminated wells or help homeowners with private wells draw on municipal water sources. In some cases, residents could get help finding alternative drinking water sources.
A successful Fenton floor amendment requires twice yearly reports to the Legislature. They will detail how money from a newly created Water Quality and Sustainability Account is being spent, she said.
Another amendment, from Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, requires the MPCA to create a website that tracks results of well water testing in affected communities, to see if nearby residents’ water might be at risk. The site will include an interface allowing residents to request MPCA well-water tests.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, supported the bill. But he blasted a provision of the legal settlement that survived into the legislation. It caps administrative costs at 10 percent of the available money, and research at another 10 percent—potentially as much as $145 million total.
Drazkowski complained that the bill’s author and co-authors were forced to yield on that issue to secure support from state governments and city leaders.
“I want the people of Minnesota to know,” Drazkowski said, “what this bureaucracy, as it swims around in the swamp, is looking for.”
Jurgens, a bill co-author, agreed with Drazkowski that a 2.5 percent to 3 percent cap on administration and research cost would have been more appropriate. He pledged to keep working to lower those caps.
The bill defines the affected areas as the cities of Woodbury, Oakdale, Lake Elmo, Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Afton and Newport. West Lakeland and Grey Cloud Island townships also are included.
However, the bill does not prohibit adding more communities if contamination spreads. That’s a good thing, according to Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, who predicts that ultimately will happen outside the immediately defined zone. “I think we are not done with this,” Hansen said.
Because of that, Hansen lamented Swanson’s decision to settle the case for $850 million.
“The settlement should have been larger,” Hansen said. “It should have gone to court, should have been debated, it should have been settled. I think it would have been settled larger than what it is.”
Fenton agreed, saying that concern is what prompted her to craft the bill so that the MCPA and DNR cannot use money on areas outside the east metro area until water is safe to drink. But she fretted that will be a hard thing to demonstrate.
“The questions been asked that nobody can answer,” Fenton said. “How do you know when you are done? How do you know when you can move on?”
Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, suggested there is an answer to the question within the terms of the settlement.
“The lawsuit settlement was structured in such a way that that 3M is not done paying until the water is cleaned up,” Hilstrom said. “Specifically, in the agreement, it says that in the event the money runs out, 3M is on the hook to clean up the water.”
Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, said officials should be cautious about declaring the water is safe. He said MPCA scientists trying to track the plume of contamination already have been surprised at its unpredictability.
“It is a slippery substance—nothing sticks to it,” Franke said. “It did not move in the appropriate manner that our computer modeling told us it was going to move.”
Another of the bill’s provision drew a warning flag from Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis. It dictates that MPCA or the DNR must get approval from local governments before assuming control of or operating an east metro municipal water operation.
She said that provision is out of conformance with the settlement. And while it is an example of granting control to local authorities, Wagenius said, it could backfire.
If it is determined that the best way to resolve the issue is to build a water plant serving multiple communities, Wagenius said, dissent from one or two could scuttle the whole enterprise.
“It may become an impediment to the very solution that you need,” she said. Fenton said she had to make several compromises to attract needed support from stakeholders. Ceding local control was one of them.
“This is a good bill,” she said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. But there are some very good protections for everybody in this bill.”
The House voted 108-16 to approve the bill. On Tuesday, the Senate gave the bill its second reading. That could position it for a vote in the upper chamber as early as Wednesday, but after this story’s deadline.