Washington, DC — The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is paying one of its own scientists $325,000 in return for her dropping free speech lawsuit and whistleblower complaint against the agency and for resigning from the agency, according to a legal settlement agreement released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Scientist Fardin Oliaei was the coordinator for the MPCA program on emerging contaminants. Her investigations into chemicals (known as perfluorochemical compounds or PFCs, which do not break down in the environment and bio-accumulate in living tissue) used in the manufacture of nationally distributed products, such as Scotchgard, Teflon, Stainmaster and Gore-Tex caused controversy because the chemicals were manufactured by 3M, the largest employer in the state. Dr. Oliaei found –
- Through 2002, 3M dumped as much as 50,000 pounds of the chemical per year into the Mississippi River from its Cottage Grove wastewater treatment plant;
- Alarmingly high levels of PFCs in Minnesota fish in the Mississippi River near that disposal site; and
- Half of the fish examined from what are considered pristine waters of Voyageurs National Park were contaminate with PFCs.
“It had become clear to me that I was no longer going to be able to conduct scientific research in this agency,” stated Dr. Oliaei, who, under the agreement, is free to accept other state employment. “I am a scientist and I want to go someplace where I can complete this important work.”
Early last year when Dr. Oliaei’s work first became public, MPCA Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan, a former 3M executive, told Dr. Oliaei, who had worked at MPCA since 1989, there was no room in the agency for “scientific work.” Other MPCA managers also threatened to eliminate her program and reprimanded her for speaking to the media about her research. On August 18, 2005, Dr. Oliaei filed federal civil rights suit, including violation of her First Amendment free speech rights, against the MPCA, Commissioner Corrigan and other top officials.
“This settlement, which allows Dr. Oliaei to leave the Agency at this time with a measure of financial security, is in her best interest,” stated Rockford Chrastil of the Minneapolis firm of Chrastil and Steinberg who negotiated the agreement with the Office of the Attorney General which represented MPCA in the case. “After several years of battling with the MPCA to receive support for her research and the opportunity to fully investigate the potential risks of PFCs to the public, it became clear that it would be very difficult for Dr. Oliaei to pursue her work as a research scientist with the MPCA.”
Classified as a toxic, PFCs have caused birth defects and deaths in animal studies. While not yet categorized as a human carcinogen, the chemical has been associated with increased risks of liver and bladder cancers. Once consumed by humans its “elimination half-life” is slow, an estimated 8.67 years.
In a November 9, 2005 letter to PEER, the Minnesota Department of Health indicated that it would not issue an advisory about fish caught near the 3M site because the sample were from fish livers, not the fillets or flesh that people eat. The Department of Health stated that “It is our understanding that the MPCA plans to collect Mississippi River fish and analyze fillets from these fish for PFC” but it is not clear whether this work will be done in the absence of Dr. Oliaei.
“It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Minnesota when the state government will shell out big money just to keep its scientists from doing research,” commented PEER General Counsel Richard Condit, whose organization is also working with Dr. Oliaei to find other venues to continue her PFC investigations. “The investigation into the extent of the contamination and its public health implications for Minnesotans and others downstream will continue, with or without the state’s cooperation.”