A top 3M official objected strongly to a state proposal this year to study potential contamination of the Mississippi River near a company plant, but the research went forward anyway, according to testimony before a Senate panel Thursday.

Two Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials told legislators that Mike Santoro, 3M director of regulatory affairs, became visibly angry when informed at an April 26 meeting that agency research scientists were planning to sample river sediment and fish near the company’s plant in Cottage Grove.

The agency is looking for chemicals that the Maplewood company formerly manufactured there for use in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics and other products.

“He was quite agitated and made it clear that he didn’t want us to do the study,” MPCA principal engineer Don Kriens told the Senate environment and natural resources committee Thursday, referring to Santoro.

While companies sometimes object to studies that the agency requires them to conduct and to pay for, Kriens said, he has never seen a company object to research that the agency was proposing with its own funds.

“It felt awkward,” Kriens said. “There was pressure not to do the study.”

Meeting ‘congenial,’ 3M says

Santoro did not attend Thursday’s meeting. But in a later interview, 3M environmental communications manager Bill Nelson said that the company disagrees with comments attributed to Santoro.

Nelson described the April gathering as a “congenial business meeting” between the company and the agency. Santoro may have raised questions at that time about whether the state would duplicate research that the company was already planning, he said.

Nelson said 3M had been asked to attend the April meeting to provide an overview of its history and research about substances called perfluorochemicals, which it manufactured for decades before phasing them out between 2000 and 2002.

The chemicals do not degrade in the environment, and they can accumulate in humans. Exposure to high levels of them in lab tests has caused liver damage and other problems in monkeys, and they are a suspected human carcinogen.

Although the MPCA study went forward, one of its lead investigators, research scientist Fardin Oliaei, told legislators that it was pared back and that her supervisors made it difficult to proceed by shortening deadlines and by not providing feedback.

She felt such lack of support from her agency, Oliaei said, that she didn’t know whether her boss was the MPCA or 3M.

That upset Michael Kanner, manager of several MPCA cleanup programs, who told legislators that 3M and other companies do not dictate agency decisions. “The final bottom line is that we did the study,” he said.

Research results not available

Results of the research are not available yet, other officials said.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville and chairman of the committee, said the purpose of Thursday’s hearing was to question whether the MPCA has been investigating the chemicals aggressively enough.

Marty invited MPCA Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan to attend the hearing. She declined, and explained by letter that she has recused herself from all decisions related to 3M because she worked there before joining the Pawlenty administration.

Two panel members, Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, and Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, questioned whether Oliaei’s criticism of the agency was primarily the comments of a disgruntled employee. Oliaei filed a federal whistleblower complaint and a discrimination lawsuit against the agency earlier this year for allegedly restraining her research and reprimanding her.

However, some MPCA scientists and managers have defended the quality of Oliaei’s scientific work and her persistence as the agency’s emerging-contaminants coordinator.

Dale Case, a homeowner in Oakdale who lives within a mile of a former dump where some 3M wastes were disposed, told legislators that many citizens are growing increasingly concerned about perfluorochemicals in wells and groundwater.

A retired 3M chemist, Case also questioned whether the state’s drinking water levels for the chemicals are protective enough for children, pregnant women and pets. He said he is suspicious about the water because he has lost three biologically unrelated dogs to liver disease in recent years.

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