The state of Minnesota sued 3M Co on Thursday, saying that the company contaminated the state's waters for decades with chemicals used in some of its best known products, including Scotchgard stain repellent.
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The lawsuit, filed by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, seeks unspecified damages from 3M.
The company did not respond to a request for a comment.
According to the complaint, filed in state court, St. Paul-based 3M polluted public and private wells in the state for years by pumping the PFCs, or perfluorochemicals, it uses to make fire retardants, paints, stain repellents and other products into waters flowing into the Mississippi River and by burying the chemicals underground.
3M manufactured PFCs in the state from the 1950s through 2002. It stopped making them following negotiations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which says the chemicals pose serious risks to human health and the environment.
In 2007, the company signed a consent decree with the state's pollution control agency and agreed to remediate a number of sites in Minnesota. The Minnesota cities most affected by the releases, according to the complaint, include Cottage Grove, Oakdale, Woodbury and Lake Elmo.
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3M, best known for its Post-it Notes and Scotch tape, has been engaged in settlement talks with the state to pay damages for the contamination for some time.
In 2007, the company agreed to temporarily halt the statute of limitations clock on any damage claims while those negotiations continued. That agreement expired on Thursday without any progress on a final settlement, so the state sued.
The attorney general said 3M set aside $117 million in reserves for potential environmental liability relating to its disposal and discharge of PFCs.
That's a fraction of the estimated $500 million General Electric Co has paid so far to dredge the Hudson River in New York to remove PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, from the riverbed.
Earlier this month, the EPA ordered GE to dredge deeper into the Hudson River as part of the next phase of an effort to remove the cancer-causing chemicals dumped into the river over decades.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, some PFCs released by 3M have been linked to cancer in experiments with laboratory animals.
In a report earlier this year, the health department noted that a recent study of 3M employees by the company suggested a positive association between exposure to some PFCs and prostate cancer, cerebrovascular disease and diabetes.
3M is a manufacturer that makes everything from office supplies such as Post-it Notes to industrial abrasives to the optical film used to brighten television and computer screens.
Along with Target Corp, the Mayo Clinic and Cargill Inc, 3M is one of Minnesota's biggest employers and best-known companies.
It is also one of its most profitable. In its most recent quarter, 3M reported earnings of $1.1 billion on sales of $6.9 billion.
The state of Minnesota is not doing nearly as well. It faces a projected shortfall of $6.2 billion heading into its next two-year budget, due in part to delayed payments to schools and the end of federal stimulus funding.
3M's shares seemed to shrug off the news of the lawsuit. They were last trading at $86.51, 25 cents below their Wednesday closing price.