It was a question Don Kriens didn’t want to answer. Not with the deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and an assortment of upper-level managers sitting right behind him.

But Kriens, an agency engineer who specializes in a troubling family of chemicals once manufactured by the 3M Co. in Cottage Grove, finally relented, defending his colleague Fardin Oliaei, a whistleblower under fire at the agency.

Asked by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, whether the MPCA had treated Oliaei unfairly, he talked about her abilities as an agency research scientist, how hard she works and her passion for research. Then he said, “The short answer is, yes, she has been treated unfairly.”

The moment Tuesday was perhaps the most poignant of a two-hour hearing in which the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee sought to determine how the MPCA, as the state’s environmental protector, is dealing with the perfluorochemicals, which have been found all over the world and are linked to liver problems, cancer and other health issues in laboratory animals.

As the MPCA’s emerging contaminant program coordinator, Oliaei has charged that agency managers have harassed her, blocked her research proposals, and stopped her from attending or speaking at conferences. She also has filed two legal actions against the agency that, ultimately, will address whether Kriens is correct.

“I have found that at every turn this MPCA management has tried to hinder my work in investigating the (chemical) problem,” Oliaei told the Senate committee.

The chemicals, which repel oils and water and don’t break down in the environment, were made by 3M over a five-decade period and were used in such products as Scotchgard, Teflon and Gore-Tex. The company discontinued manufacturing them in 2002 after studies determined they were being found in people and animals throughout the world. Unknown amounts were discharged into the Mississippi River and dumped in area landfills, resulting in groundwater contamination.

The committee, chaired by Marty, questioned whether the agency is paying sufficient attention to the emerging problem.

Deputy Commissioner Kristen Applegate and Tim Scherkenbach, an agency division director, sought to reassure the committee, citing a number of steps the MPCA is undertaking. They include sampling private and municipal wells and landfills, as well as plans for testing river water and fish tissues.

“There are a number of different things that are happening,” Scherkenbach said.

Marty, however, didn’t like a lot of what he heard, including changes managers made to Oliaei’s research proposals to determine the extent of problems in Minnesota.

“I think that’s mucking around with science, trying to tell scientists not to do their work,” Marty said.

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, meanwhile, chastised MPCA Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan for not showing up at the hearing. Before taking the state job, Corrigan was a 3M manager who was familiar with how the Maplewood-based company dealt with the chemicals.

Marty said she was not required to attend the hearing. Applegate said Corrigan was attending an MPCA citizens’ board meeting. Chaudhary, however, called the commissioner’s absence “insulting.”

Corrigan has removed herself from all agency decisions dealing with 3M, but the committee elicited testimony that her recusal wasn’t well known. She was appointed to the office in late 2002, but didn’t put notice of her recusal in a formal letter until June 2004.

Applegate and Scherkenbach said Corrigan’s decision was widely known right away, but Kriens and Oliaei told the committee they didn’t learn of it until last winter.

As the hearing ended, Marty, who plans to hold another hearing later this year, urged the agency to do better work.

“As far as the agency that is supposed to protect the environment and the public health, I’m not sure it deserves a passing grade,” he said.

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