CORDOVA, Ill. — The Illinois attorney general alleges that 3M knowingly manufactured and used dangerous chemicals for years, ultimately contaminating the nearby Mississippi River, residential wells and surface, ground and drinking water around its Cordova facility, according to a new lawsuit.
Attorney General Kwame Raoul filed the suit in Rock Island County Circuit Court, saying that 3M has been aware of the toxicity of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals for decades, but downplayed the negative impacts. Now, the continued use of such substances have resulted in substantial health and environmental risks, the lawsuit maintains.
Sampling conducted by 3M, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois EPA all confirmed the presence of contaminated groundwater at the facility, as well as in the Mississippi River.
At the heart of the case is a group of harmful, synthetic chemicals most commonly referred to as PFAS. The state also calls them "forever chemicals" because once the substance is out in the environment, it's extremely difficult to remove. Resistant to heat, water and oil, PFAS can be transmitted to humans through drinking water or by consuming animals that have already ingested some.
In humans, high levels of PFAS exposure can lead to liver damage, decreased fertility, pregnancy-induced hypertension and/or preeclampsia as well as a variety of cancers.
"3M manufactured PFAS at the Cordova Facility, discharged PFAS-containing waste directly into the Mississippi River, disposed of PFAS-containing sludge from its wastewater treatment plant... and spilled and leaked PFAS from containers, piping systems, tanks and the wastewater treatment process, all of which resulted in a significant contamination of surface waters, groundwater, drinking water, wetlands, soil, sediment, and air at and around the Cordova Facility," the suit states.
In response, the company said, in a statement: "3M acted responsibly in connection with its manufacturing operations and products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship."
"For decades, 3M has been aware of the dangers of PFAS, or 'forever chemicals.' Despite scientific evidence gathered by its own research, 3M downplayed or denied the health and environmental hazards connected to PFAS, and even promoted these toxic chemicals as being safe to manufacture,” Raoul said in a statement.
The Cordova facility has been owned and operated by 3M since the 1970s. It's one of their 3M locations used to make chemical products including adhesives, fluorochemicals, resins and more.
According to the lawsuit, 3M knew of the danger PFAS presented to the public as early as the 1950s. Just two decades later, the company had confirmed that the chemicals were toxic to various fish and aquatic wildlife.
"3M conducted multiple studies throughout 1975 and 1976 that confirmed the presence of PFAS in blood of the workers who handled PFAS at levels between 50 to 1000 times higher than 'normal' levels," the suit states.
Despite this, 3M continued to create, discharge and dispose of PFAS at its Cordova location all while promoting the chemicals as being safe to manufacture and use, argued Raoul's office.
June 2020 sample results for a groundwater monitoring well in the Cordova plant's manufacturing area found "significantly higher" levels of PFAS than what the Illinois EPA's current Health Advisory Levels call for.
For one specific chemical, known as PFOA, the Health Advisory Level stands at just two nanograms per liter of water, with a nanogram being one-billionth of a gram. In the June 2020 sample, scientists found 5,570 nanograms of PFOA per liter of water.
And those chemicals have been found in nearby residential wells.
"3M has detected significant levels of PFAS in groundwater in nearby areas around the Cordova Facility," the suit states. "3M has detected concentrations of PFBA at nearly every residential well sampled during every year that sampling has occurred."
The Cordova facility also discharges an average of 8.1 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into the Mississippi River every day. The attorney general's office says PFAS have been found in that water as well.
"3M must be held accountable for the contamination its operations in Cordova have caused. This lawsuit is an important step toward accountability and protecting the surrounding environment and public health," Raoul said in a statement.
According to the state, 3M's own chairman and CEO, Mike Roman, admitted during a January 2020 earnings conference call that 3M had discovered a PFAS discharge issue in Cordova.
Now, the state is seeking to hold the company liable for the cost of finding, monitoring and cleaning up the contamination, as well as requiring 3M to take action to prevent future issues and fix damaged areas.
A statement from the attorney general's office also asks for civil penalties of up to $50,000 for each violation of the Illinois Environmental Protection Act as well as $10,000 for each day the violations continue.