3M under fire in Belgium over company's handling of contamination

·4 min read

It's déjà vu for some Minnesotans: 'Forever chemicals' are polluting the soil and water near a 3M Co. plant.

But this time the 3M plant is in Belgium, where an escalating dispute over the company's handling of soil and water contamination underscores the global dimensions of the PFAS crisis — and threatens to land 3M in court yet again.

The struggle has unfolded across the front page of the Brussels Times. Meanwhile, an edited video clip from the Dutch-language Flemish public broadcasting network VRT showing 3M executives unable to answer the questions of Flemish lawmakers at an Sept. 3 investigative hearing has circulated around social media in Belgium.

The 3M plant is located in Zwijndrecht, near the port city of Antwerp. It's one of at least four facilities where 3M has manufactured or worked with PFAS, including Cottage Grove, Decatur, Ala. and Cordova, Ill.

Most recently, environment officials of Flanders, the government region where the 3M plant sits, served both 3M's Belgium subsidiary and Maplewood-based parent 3M Co. with a "default notice."

It essentially warns 3M that Flanders deems the company to be violating its environmental regulations, and demands that 3M engage with its regulators to discuss remediation, abatement and the creation of a fund to pay for environmental damages and potential health damages.

"The ministry wants action," said Esther Berezofsky, a partner with the U.S. law firm Motley Rice who was hired by the Flemish government. "They [3M] have consistently downplayed both the environmental impact as well as the health risks associated with these chemicals."

The contamination involves both legacy PFOS, one of the original man-made PFAS that 3M stopped making in 2002, and failure to disclose releases of newer generation substances in the family, Berezofsky said. The chemicals were in the industrial wastewater that 3M discharged into the nearby Scheldt River, and likely also migrated in other ways.

The newer generation PFAS at issue are FBSA, MeFBSA and MeFBSAA. They are a handful among thousands of fluorinated chemicals in the PFAS family, a chemistry that 3M pioneered and continues to use that is characterized by a superstrong carbon-fluorine bond.

The chemicals have been widely used in a host of industrial and consumer products for their nonstick and water resistant properties. But they don't break down in the environment, and they accumulate in blood. They pose significant health risks, scientists have found, and are linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease and hormonal disruptions.

Berezofsky said she thinks the Belgium case is one of the first where parties are seeking to hold the 3M parent company responsible for contamination outside the United States.

Warnings to residents

3M is taking responsibility, said Rebecca Teeters, the company's senior vice president of Fluorochemical Stewardship.

Teeters, the executive shown in the video clip, said via e-mail that 3M is committed to a final remediation plan and has said so publicly at least twice. The company is working with independent soil remediation experts and Flemish officials to figure out the best way to clean up the contamination.

"It's unfortunate that there's such a disconnect on the facts of this situation as we continue to work with Minister [Zuhal] Demir's office," Teeters wrote. "It's also unfortunate that we continue to see misunderstanding and mistrust when we are working hard to collaborate with all parties in science-based discourse about how, not if, 3M will take action."

Company spokesman Sean Lynch said the video snippet doesn't accurately portray the hourslong investigative hearing, and that Teeters was not provided with the questions ahead of time for preparation.

Belgium's PFAS pollution first became public a few years ago during a highway construction project, according to the office of Demir, the Flemish minister for Justice and Enforcement, Environment, Energy and Tourism.

A range of tests showed elevated levels of PFOS in the soil and water, and in the blood of nearby residents. Health officials have now issued warnings for nearby residents to limit their consumption of locally-laid eggs and homegrown vegetables, and to avoid drinking groundwater.

Most of the community's drinking water in that area comes from a different river that has not been affected, according to Andy Pieters, Demir's deputy chief of cabinet.

An additional shock, Pieters said in an interview, was that it now appears Flanders regulators under a previous administration were aware of problems but did not act.

Pieters said the frustration with 3M's response to the cleanup has been brewing but came to a head after the unsatisfactory performance of company executives at the investigative committee hearing in Parliament on Sept. 3.

"Now we're almost in a Dark Waters movie," said Pieters.

He was referring to the 2019 film about lawyer Robert Bilott's legal crusade to hold DuPont accountable for widespread PFOA contamination in West Virginia.

Pieters said that children and pregnant women closest to the 3M plant have been warned to eat zero homegrown produce and local eggs.

"There were some pregnant women that said, 'What's going on, I'm eight months pregnant and I've been eating eggs,' " he said. "You can imagine the panic."

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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