Two scientists at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency told a state panel Thursday that a 3M Co. official tried to persuade the agency last spring not to conduct a study of a controversial group of chemicals that don’t break down in the environment.

Fardin Oliaei and Don Kriens said that 3M’s Mike Santoro strongly objected to Oliaei’s proposals to conduct fish samples in the Mississippi River and added that agency superiors seemed to be discrediting her research effort.

Agency heads and 3M, however, disagreed with that characterization. The agency said objections from regulated companies are not unusual and emphasized the study went ahead as proposed. 3M, meanwhile, said it simply wanted to ensure its work and the agency’s was coordinated.

The three-hour hearing was the second held by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which is looking into how the agency responded to a poorly understood group of chemicals called perflurochemicals once made by 3M at its Cottage Grove plant.

The chemicals, which repel oils and water and don’t break down in the environment, have been found all over the world and are linked to liver problems, cancer and other health issues in laboratory animals. 3M, however, has insisted they aren’t a health threat to people or the environment.

They were made over a five-decade period and were used in such products as Scotchgard, Teflon and Gore-Tex. Before the company discontinued manufacturing them earlier this decade, unknown amounts were discharged into the Mississippi River and dumped in area landfills, resulting in groundwater contamination.

At an April meeting, Oliaei said Santoro, 3M’s director of regulatory affairs, strongly objected to her proposal and didn’t want the agency to pursue it. “He was visibly angry,” Oliaei said, adding later, “I did not hear any kind of support from managers.”

Oliaei, the agency’s emerging contaminant program coordinator, said some agency managers then tried to discredit her work.

Committee Chairman Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, asked Kriens, who supported Oliaei’s recollection, if such a company stance is typical.

“I’ve seen companies come in and object to studies they pay for,” said Kriens, an agency engineer working on those chemicals. “This was unique. I haven’t seen them object to a study we were going to pay for.”

Several MPCA officials, including Superfund manager Michael Kanner, assured the panel the agency is taking the emerging threat seriously. As for Santoro’s reaction, Kanner said he thought Santoro was caught by surprise.

“I don’t think he was happy with the timing,” Kanner said.

“In any case, 3M doesn’t tell us what to do,” he added. “We are the regulator. We tell them what to do.”

For its part, 3M said it wasn’t bullying anyone. “This was a conventional business meeting whereby 3M was present to provide an overview of all its work with regard to this chemistry,” 3M spokesman Bill Nelson said.

Marty plans to hold at least one more informational hearing on the issue.

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