Lake Elmo flooded with water questions

About a year ago, Steve Chlebech, a 30-year Lake Elmo resident, spent thousands of dollars installing a new private well on his property near the Tablyn Park neighborhood. On Nov. 1, the Lake Elmo City Council approved a resolution that may see that well sealed off about one year from now.
Chlebech and 213 other private well owners in the Tablyn Park and Lake Elmo Heights neighborhoods (just south of Highway 5 and east of County Road 13) will soon be utilizing municipal water afforded them by an approximately $3.7 million grant from 3M. The company is also responsible, however, for creating the need for public water in these areas, since the State Health Department found unsafe levels of 3M-made perfluorochemicals (PFCs) in 19 different wells between February and October.
Although most scientific studies have not been able to prove that PFCs (durable compounds made originally for use in Teflon products) are in any way harmful to humans, some research has revealed them to be potential carcinogens in animals when found in extremely high levels. State agencies suspect the chemicals seeped into the groundwater through county landfills where the Cottage Grove 3M plant has dumped waste products.
The PFCs’ emergence in Lake Elmo (and in trace amounts in Oakdale’s municipal wells) has led the Health Department to collect hundreds of water samples, put the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency under scrutiny for potentially suppressing research and brought a lawsuit against the Maplewood-based company by six Washington County residents, two of which reside in Lake Elmo. For Steve Chlebech (whose well has tested clean), the city’s plan to connect his neighborhood to a new 750,000-gallon water tank going in at Highway 5 and Ideal Avenue is not his main concern.
“My biggest complaint is that I just spent a lot of money on a new well and now you’re telling me that it has to be capped and I have to pay X amount every month for new water?” Chlebech said following the Nov. 1 City Council meeting that filled City Hall to its capacity with residents, some confused and perturbed by the increasingly complex matter.
“I don’t know who to trust,” Chlebech said. “I think everybody has difficulty knowing who to believe. ... There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on.”

Awash in blame
Much of that is being aimed directly at 3M, the company that produced PFCs for about 50 years before halting their production in 2000, not long after discovering that the chemicals were present in the blood of the general human and animal population.
In addition to the reimbursement grant for bringing water to the affected wells, the global corporation donated the approximately 8 acres on which the new water tower and Lake Elmo public works building will be built (3M is also financing a large carbon-filtration system for Oakdale’s most contaminated municipal well). But on Nov. 1, while the City Council considered a resolution to go ahead with plans for Tablyn Park and Lake Elmo Heights, residents expressed a desire for more.
“Don’t charge me. It isn’t right,” Terry Needham emphatically told the council Nov. 1 to the approval of a few residents. “We all know that 3M screwed up two aquifers. Why doesn’t the city say, ‘3M, pay the water bills’?”
Finance Director Tom Bouthilet estimated an average monthly water bill to be about $22, meaning Needham’s request (echoed by Chlebech and a few others at the meeting) would come to about $56,500 annually for the 214 residents hooking up to new water.
There were no 3M representatives present at the City Council meeting, but Communications Manager Bill Nelson did attend an informational meeting held a week prior at Oak-Land Junior High School, where spokespersons for the State Health Department, Pollution Control Agency and Lake Elmo answered residents’ questions. Nelson could offer little comment on the request that 3M take on more financial responsibility than it already has since neither the city nor any residents had brought the issue to his attention yet.
“I can understand why some people would ask that question,” he said. “Since the discovery of the low levels of (PFCs) in Oakdale’s municipal wells or in Lake Elmo, 3M was going to do the responsible thing.
“We would encourage people to focus on what’s being done in terms of the environment now.”
But many citizens’ focus seemed to be split on Nov. 1, after the council approved its resolution (as well as a second that asked staff to investigate further resident compensation and possible soil testing). In scattered conversations, some residents cited their belief that the chemicals were in no way harmful to humans. Others theorized on a widespread government cover-up. Still others noted that they or their family members worked for 3M and professed a doubt over which information could be trusted.
Gale Pearson, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the case against 3M, told the assembly that her firm was conducting private testing on residents’ blood and that they have been finding the chemicals in very high levels.

Adding to the deluge
“My objective is to find the truth,” Pearson said following the meeting. “I don’t make a profit from selling this product, so I have no reason to say that it is unsafe.”
Pearson and her associates have been working on the case against 3M for about a year, hoping to force the company to pay damages to affected residents. Currently, both sides are awaiting Judge Mary Hannon’s ruling on whether the case deserves class-action status or not.
Pearson said a recent $100 million settlement made by DuPont over the same chemicals in West Virginia and Ohio motivated her to investigate the issue in Minnesota. She said her ethics did not permit her to approach residents to “drum up cases,” but she could not confirm whether her plaintiffs sought her out either.
“Some of the folks that we know are residents of Washington County, so several things came together at the same time,” she said.
Since the Nov. 1 meeting, where she spoke with several residents after the council’s decision, Pearson said she has received numerous calls from citizens requesting information. She also confirmed that she now represents residents outside the six who filed the original lawsuit against 3M, though she would not divulge how many.
Pearson said she is working for free and may not make any money if she loses her case in court.
“If I did not believe (in this case), I would not do it,” she said. “I don’t make these choices lightly.”
Pearson also denounced 3M for refusing to share certain pertinent documents unless they could be sealed from the court. Likewise, 3M is asking for the plaintiffs’ medical records to find evidence of harm, which the prosecution has also refused, claiming it an inappropriate request until trial. As for the differing information provided in 3M’s PFC studies compared to Pearson’s, both sides point to dollar signs as the reason.
“Our research and data goes back over 25 years, is published data and is part of scientific literature,” Nelson said. “People should make the choice for themselves in terms of the reliability between published research and a personal injury lawyer.”

Seeking calm waters
While residents continue to be bombarded with mixed messages regarding the chemicals in their water, most seem to agree that bringing in a new supply is a prudent decision. Mayor Dean Johnston said the council’s unanimous vote indicated a desire to do something proactive amid the controversy.
“There is a potential health and safety issue in those neighborhoods,” he said. “I can’t do anything about the past, but bringing municipal water into that area is going to take care of that health and safety issue from today forward.”
Jim Kelly, a scientist with the State Health Department who has headed up much of the research in Lake Elmo, agreed that city water was the most appropriate long-term solution to the contamination problem. As for the conflicting information about the chemicals themselves, he could see the reason for trust issues among residents.
“We haven’t had a lot of history with these chemicals. So we understand why people might have some concern over this,” Kelly said. “We know that they’re persistent; that the body has a hard time pushing them out. ... (But) I would not expect to see any adverse health effects from the low levels we’re seeing.”
Kelly said he did not believe the data and research show that PFCs are carcinogens and expressed frustration at the varied information being presented to residents. Still, he acknowledged that even science is not always objective.
“Different people can look at the same data and come to different conclusions based on what their viewpoint is going in,” Kelly said.
For Steve Chlebech, the investment he may lose and the monthly bill he’ll face when his well is capped are very black and white. Yet, when it comes to a fair and just solution for the contamination that may be in his groundwater, he’s banking on a decidedly biased opinion.
“I’m kind of hoping the City Council will be a spokesman for the residents and say, ‘Hey, the residents aren’t happy,’” Chlebech said. “It could be a pipe dream, but you’ve got to voice your opinion or else nothing will get done.”

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