Inside a corporate giant’s fight to thwart a massive pollution tab

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Inside a corporate giant’s fight to thwart a massive pollution tab




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3M is putting its lobbying muscle to work as it faces potentially massive financial liability for toxic pollution. | Karen Bleier/Getty Images

Energy & Environment

From questioning the science to donating to political campaigns, chemicals giant 3M is going all out to avoid liability for PFOA and PFAS contamination.

Chemical industry giant 3M is waging an aggressive campaign to stave off new regulations and potentially billions of dollars in damages stemming from a contamination crisis that has fouled tens of millions of Americans’ drinking water.

The Minnesota-based company is putting its lobbying muscle to work in Washington and courting the support of state attorneys general as it faces potentially massive financial liability for toxic pollution linked to two of its nonstick and water repellent chemicals, which have turned up in the water supplies of more than 1,500 U.S. communities.

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A key component of 3M’s campaign to fend off government action is a new industry advocacy group that began weighing into the debate this summer, arguing that the chemicals don’t pose a health threat — a conclusion that numerous government agencies and independent studies have disputed. The industry group’s efforts to raise doubts about the science have caused alarm among public health watchdogs who call them reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s old playbook.

3M’s combative posture contrasts with a more conciliatory approach taken by other giant companies that have been implicated in the pollution crisis, as well as the industry’s primary lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council. Those organizations have supported federal efforts to evaluate and regulate the chemicals, banking on the Trump administration to deliver industry-friendly rules.

But as the chemicals’ original and biggest manufacturer, 3M faces a different scale of risk.

A glimpse at the scope of its potential liability emerged in February, when 3M reached an $850 million settlement with Minnesota for damage the company’s chemicals caused to the state’s drinking water. New York state soon filed its own lawsuit, and outgoing Republican Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder asked his state’s attorney general to pursue litigation as well. Meanwhile, dozens of other personal injury, class-action and property damage lawsuits are piling up against the company across the country. Altogether, industry experts say the company’s liability could reach the tens of billions of dollars.

Joshua Aguilar, an equity analyst with Morningstar, said analysts view the Minnesota settlement as a one-off event, at least for now, but that the litigation from other states and class-action suits could threaten the company’s value.

“If you have different jurisdictions where this becomes serious, you have to settle one, you have to settle another, it becomes a contagion effect,” he said.

The chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS, have been used for five decades in products ranging from firefighting foam to Teflon to 3M’s signature Scotchgard. They take years to break down in the environment, giving them the nickname “forever chemicals.” They also accumulate in human bodies, where they have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, immune disorders and other ailments — and have been found in more than 99 percent of Americans’ blood.

Communities from New York to Michigan to Colorado have been in an uproar as more contaminations have come to light. Earlier this year, POLITICO reported that the Trump administration sought to block a federal study finding they pose a danger at lower levels than the EPA previously deemed safe — a conclusion one White House said warned could be “a public relations nightmare.” That study, published by an agency of the CDC, finally came out this summer.

3M did not respond to multiple questions from POLITICO about its political activity and lobbying around the chemicals, which are part of a broader category of substances known as PFAS. But it acknowledged its membership in the new advocacy group, the Responsible Science Policy Coalition, as well as being a member of other business-oriented organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable and the American Chemistry Council.

“3M is a technology and manufacturing company committed to scientific research and environmental stewardship,” company spokesperson Fanna Haile-Selassie said in a statement. She noted that the company, which lobbies on a wide variety of topics from taxes to health care, “voluntarily discloses its political activities and the public policy reasons behind them.”

An industry source with knowledge of the Responsible Science Policy Coalition said 3M is its main backer.

3M’s political action committee poured money into state-level campaigns this year including to attorney general candidates in Michigan, Ohio, California and Alabama — all states with major PFAS contaminations. The company also made its first contributions since at least 2013, totaling more than $36,000, to the Republican Attorneys General Association and its Democratic counterpart. Those groups, in turn, donate millions to their parties’ candidates for state attorney general without disclosing which contributions were directed by which corporate donors.

Some attorneys general have proven receptive to the company’s message.

In Alabama, where the chemicals made by 3M’s manufacturing plant in Decatur have contaminated the Tennessee River, a drinking water source for 4.7 million people, the freshly reelected attorney general has refused to join a drinking water utility’s lawsuit against the company. GOP Attorney General Steve Marshall received $2,000 from 3M’s political action campaign, and RAGA gave $735,000 during his bruising primary — a contribution that both Republicans and Democrats in the state argue violates Alabama’s ban on contributions between political action committees. Records do not indicate whether 3M directed any of its RAGA donations to him.

The northern Alabama water utility that supplies some of the state’s poorest communities with water drawn from just downstream of the 3M plant has sued the company over the contamination. The water utility’s manager formally requested Marshall’s help in the litigation an Oct. 12 letter, and said that Marshall’s predecessor, former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, had been collaborating with the water utility on the issue before Strange was appointed to the state’s open U.S. Senate seat in February 2017. But Marshall told a Huntsville television station last month that he is trying to determine whether his office has a role in the contamination case, WHNT-TV reported.

“I’m not the environmental watchdog,” he told the station. “My job is to make sure that we enforce the laws and do things that are appropriate for the people of this state.”

Marshall’s office declined to respond to POLITICO’s queries about the campaign contributions or his stance on the lawsuit.

State attorneys general were also the audience for the first public appearance of the Responsible Science Policy Coalition.

The coalition’s lobbyist warned against acting too fast to regulate the chemicals when he spoke on a panel at the Conference of Western Attorneys General in New Mexico in July.

“So much of what you see in emerging chemicals is people jump forward because of public pressure and things like that, make decisions, but then as more science emerges, we realize, ‘Oh, maybe that wasn’t the right decision,’ and it’s very hard to pull things back once you’ve done them,” lobbyist Jonathan Gledhill told the attorneys general, according to a video posted online by the conference.

Representatives of the coalition have also met with several congressional offices and EPA political appointees in recent months, arguing that “the weight of current scientific evidence does not show that PFOS or PFOA cause adverse health effects in humans at current levels of exposure.” That conclusion flies in the face of findings by leading independent scientific researchers, EPA and the CDC.

The lobby group contends it is simply interested in assuring a sound process.

“The Coalition supports EPA’s ongoing efforts to evaluate and develop appropriate regulations and guidance for PFAS and to collaborate on testing, remediation and research that will help assist federal agencies, states and communities to more comprehensively evaluate PFAS occurrences,” coalition attorney James Votaw said in a statement to POLITICO.

But Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the strategy a classic industry approach to delaying and undermining regulations.

“The goal is to stave off regulation by questioning the science,” Halpern said. He likened the new industry group to a similarly named organization, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, that the tobacco industry used in the early 1990s to attack EPA’s findings on secondhand smoke.

Briefing materials from the Responsible Science Policy Coalition obtained by POLITICO feature charts comparing the average concentration of the chemicals in Americans’ blood with the levels at which the chemicals have been found to harm animals in industry-backed studies. The implication is that humans’ exposure is far below the level that causes harm.

But David Savitz, an epidemiologist at Brown University’s School of Public Health, called the approach “disingenuous.” He said scientists recognize that humans’ bodies aren’t the same as those of lab animals, and they adjust the comparisons to account for those differences.

Moreover, he said, looking at the average person’s exposure is misleading because people living near contaminated hotspots, like manufacturing sites or military bases, have far higher risks.

Indeed, 3M’s own internal documents, which were handed to the Minnesota attorney general’s office as part of the lawsuit that settled in February, show that the company has known since the 1970s that the chemicals were toxic, according to reporting by The Intercept.

The coalition’s efforts to question the chemicals’ harm have set off alarm bells on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, pressed Trump administration officials during a recent hearing to dispute the group’s arguments that the chemicals aren’t linked to illnesses.

“What this country needs is responsible regulation to protect the public’s health and the environment, not more efforts to delay solutions and downplay risks,” Carper said in a statement to POLITICO.

3M’s campaign against government regulation has even caused concern from others within industry. DuPont, which faces major liabilities for PFOA, and the industry’s biggest lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council, have backed EPA’s efforts to evaluate and regulate the chemicals, banking on the Trump administration to write the most industry-friendly regulations that they can hope for.

“You are never going to have a more favorable administration than this administration to set standards,” a person in the industry said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal industry discussions. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt committed to taking the first step toward potentially regulating PFOA and PFOS in drinking water and setting cleanup standards. His successor, acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, has reiterated that pledge.

Asked about agency officials’ meetings with 3M and the new coalition, EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said they have met with a “variety” of individuals and officials about the chemicals. She said the agency will issue a plan that outlines short- and long-term steps for dealing with the chemicals.

Still, a version of the strategy 3M is deploying at the national level has already borne fruit in the company’s home state of Minnesota. There, years before this February’s hefty legal settlement, 3M persuaded lawmakers and regulators to pull back from formally declaring the chemicals hazardous — a designation that could have brought even wider-reaching legal consequences.

But now the company is facing a new challenge, from a novel legal technique aimed at short-circuiting 3M’s efforts to question the science.

As part of a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of residents near DuPont’s Teflon manufacturing plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., a decade and a half ago, DuPont agreed to do medical monitoring and to convene an independent science panel to evaluate PFOA’s health effects. Those studies produced the lion’s share of evidence about the chemical’s effects on human health. And crucially, the settlement required that the company not only fund the independent research but be bound by its findings.

This February, that science led to a settlement between DuPont and residents affected by its plant’s water contamination, with the company agreeing to pay $670 million to 3,550 residents.

The Cincinnati attorney behind that suit has since filed a new lawsuit, on behalf of an Ohio firefighter, that seeks to create another independent science panel that would look at PFOA, PFOS and other chemicals in the class, whose findings would bind 3M, DuPont, Chemours and other major manufacturers of the chemicals.

“There is tremendous fear, anxiety, and uncertainty across the country as to the serious public health threat posed by PFAS contamination,” the attorney, Robert Bilott, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit in October. “This lawsuit could provide a mechanism for addressing and resolving those concerns through a truly comprehensive and independent, science-based process paid for by those that actually created the problem — and not by the American taxpayers.”

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