Environmental agency conflicts of interest not unique to Minnesota


Conflicts of interest between state environmental agencies and the polluters they regulate are a serious problem. These conflicts occur because special interest money corrupts the political process. Lobbyists and people affiliated with chemical manufacturers make generous campaign contributions to governors, who appoint heads of the agencies responsible for environmental protection.

So it was no surprise when Governor Tim Pawlenty appointed Sheryl Corrigan, a former manager at 3M — a manufacturer of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) used in making “Scotchgard” — as head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) three years ago. The MPCA has regulatory authority over PFCs that 3M produces. Who better to make sure pollution regulations are favorable to 3M than a former 3M manager.

Unfortunately, this problem is not unique to Minnesota. In West Virginia, the governor appointed Stephanie Timmermeyer, a lawyer who previously represented DuPont, as head of the West Virginia Department
of Environmental Protection (WV DEP). DuPont is also a manufacturer of PFCs. The WV DEP has regulatory authority over the chemicals DuPont produces. Who better to make sure pollution regulations are favorable to DuPont than a former DuPont attorney?

There seems to be a pattern here. And it is a serious problem.

Scientists have compared PFCs to dioxin. An EPA advisory panel called certain PFCs “likely carcinogens”. While scientists have more to learn about PFCs we know they are toxic, extremely persistent, and they accumulate up the food chain. Unlike dioxin, which is not found in most people, almost all of us would test positive for PFC contamination. MPCA officials claim Commissioner Corrigan recused herself from issues related to 3M and PFCs, avoiding any involvement in those issues. But that recusal was not put in writing until a year and a half into her tenure. Even then, some of the staff did not know about the recusal until months later. And there is evidence that she may be involved with PFCs anyway.

West Virginia agency officials offer a similar line, except the agency never produced a written recusal from Timmermeyer. Have DuPont and 3M taken advantage of these “fox guarding the chicken coop” arrangements, where their people run state environmental agencies?

A West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection employee told federal investigators “DuPont reviewed and edited DEP news releases” related to PFCs. When one press release went out without DuPont approval, a company lawyer informed the environmental agency that this was “unacceptable”. The manufacturer’s control was so complete that a DuPont official wrote that if DuPont received any media inquiries about the unacceptable news release she would state, “We understand that the WVDEP has disavowed that statement…” and refer them to a DuPont ally in the department, according to an investigative report in the Charleston Gazette.

In Minnesota, the Senate Environment Committee held hearings at which a highly respected MPCA scientist, Dr Fardin Oliaei, testified that agency managers sat by while 3M representatives pressured her to limit testing for PFC contamination. The pressure was so strong that Dr. Oliaei questioned whether her boss was the MPCA or 3M! Another MPCA employee reported that a 3M lobbyist told agency employees that he’d recently met with their boss, Commissioner Corrigan, to discuss the future of the agency and the need to get rid of certain staffers, citing an employee who had been aggressively investigating PFCs. The lobbyist later dismissed it as a joke. Joke or no joke, it is just one more way to silence workers trying to protect the environment.

For more than 20 years, DuPont and 3M have had research showing that PFCs are toxic to laboratory animals. In 1982, 3M and DuPont met with the EPA to discuss a 3M study that showed facial birth defects in rats exposed to large doses of a PFC. They failed to disclose a 1981 DuPont study that showed two of eight pregnant PFC workers also gave birth to babies with facial defects.

Thousand dollar contributions made to West Virginia’s governor by DuPont lobbyists who are former law partners of Secretary Timmermeyer might explain her appointment, as well as the failure of state regulators to deal with PFCs appropriately.

Large contributions to Governor Pawlenty by 3M executives and lobbyists,
former colleagues of Commissioner Corrigan, might likewise explain her appointment. It could explain why the MPCA removed several key people working on the PFC investigation. Now, the MPCA has actually forced Dr. Oliaei to leave the agency, destroying the career of a dedicated scientist. This leaves the MPCA without her expertise at a time when she is most needed — we learned at a February Senate hearing that her last research project at the MPCA found that Mississippi River fish have a higher concentration of PFCs than wildlife tested anywhere in the world.

Once upon a time, the public could trust that state environmental agencies were diligently protecting the environment and public health. The disturbing parallel between Minnesota and West Virginia is no coincidence. It is an all too common illustration of polluters buying influence with politicians and their appointees who are supposed to be serving the public.