There must be something in the water
This is the first of two parts. Read part 2 here.
Amara Strande said students at Oakdale’s Tartan High School joked about avoiding the water fountains, saying “Don’t drink the 3M cancer water.”
It was the darkest of jokes: In 2005, state health officials announced that 3M had contaminated Oakdale’s water.
People living in the East Metro had elevated perfluorocarbons in their blood compared to the rest of the country, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
By 2017, a 100-square-mile underground plume east of St. Paul was contaminated with harmful compounds, former Attorney General Lori Swanson alleged in a lawsuit against 3M.
That’s the same year Amara began having headaches, nausea, frequent nosebleeds and horrific abdominal pain. Some days it seemed like all she could do was sleep.
A nearly 15-pound tumor was embedded in her liver, a rare type of cancer called fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma. It strikes one in 5 million Americans between the ages of 15 to 39.
Surgery is the only proven treatment, and often the only option.
Now 20, Amara has had more than 20 surgeries to battle the tumors that keep growing in her body.
The spring after the first big tumor was removed, doctors found more tumors by her kidneys.
She went back to school her junior year, but in the fall she went to the ER with abdominal pain. That March, Amara underwent another major surgery to remove a tumor the size of a baseball stuck to the part of her small intestine called the duodenum, along with other suspicious nodes found along her lower lymphatic tract. After surgery, she completed another three months of chemotherapy and five weeks of daily radiation.
In 2019, she had surgery on a growth in her right lung, but doctors missed a tumor, so they had to go back again on her 18th birthday.
The tumor grew back. In 2021, a Chicago surgeon tried ablating the tumor. It didn’t work.
Over the next 10 months, Amara tried numerous experimental treatments, but none of them worked either.
Many surgeons refused to touch Amara because of the high risk of losing her right arm, but a top pediatric thoracic surgeon successfully removed four tumors the size of Ping-Pong balls from her chest.
Last year, she got a chance at normalcy and went to Augsburg University, majoring in music production, living with her cat. She went to Hawaii. That’s when she began to view cancer as a chronic illness.
“The day I started living life again was the day I finally accepted and came to the realization I’m not gonna find a cure,” she said.
Amara’s story, while extraordinary, is not unique in Oakdale. A 2017 study found that a child who died there between 2003 and 2015 was 171% more likely to have had cancer than a child who died in the surrounding area.
Although 3M contends that a definitive, smoking-gun link between 3M’s waste and Oakdale’s cancer rates has never been established, the city’s cancer incidence went down after 2006, when 3M helped pay for a water filtration system and chemical contamination levels dropped.
Nearly 17 years later, Oakdale residents continue to grapple with lingering, seemingly unexplainable health effects, and they wonder about the role 3M chemicals may have played in their ailments.
In a statement to the Reformer, 3M said while some studies have linked certain health conditions to higher levels of some fluorochemicals than is typically found in everyday life, researchers haven’t found a definitive causal link between exposure to the chemicals and health conditions.
“Global health agencies and researchers acknowledge the limited nature of evidence indicating that PFAS cause harmful effects for specific health endpoints,” the 3M statement reads.
The company cites the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which has said, “the available human studies have identified some potential targets of toxicity; however, cause-and-effect relationships have not been established for any of the effects, and the effects have not been consistently found in all studies.” 3M also cites the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which has stated there’s “limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of perfluorooctanoic acid,” or PFOA. And, an expert panel commissioned by the Australian government in 2018 concluded “there is no current evidence that suggests an increase in overall cancer risk.”
‘Massive quantities’ of contaminated waste dumped
As 3M grew over the years to a $65 billion company, neighborhoods sprouted up around its huge Maplewood campus where about 7,000 people work today.
Tartan High School opened in 1971; it’s a matter of local debate whether the school was named after 3M products, as with the former Tartan Park, which 3M built for employees in 1963.
In the 1950s, 3M began manufacturing per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances — chemicals — in Minnesota to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. Soon, they were everywhere: Scotchgard stain repellent, Teflon cookware, fast food wrapping and fire retardants.
3M made the chemicals in Cottage Grove, producing thousands of gallons of wet industrial waste every year.
By the 1960s, the company was generating 4 million gallons of wet chemical waste annually, dumping it into mostly unlined pits, even though 3M knew by then it was polluting groundwater, according to internal documents obtained by the attorney general as part of the 2010 lawsuit.
Dumping the waste into landfills in the 1950s and 1960s “was a common and accepted practice at the time,” the company has said.
Now the chemicals can be found in the blood of nearly all people on the planet, and in animals from polar bears to eaglets. They’ve been linked to low fertility, birth defects, suppression of the immune system, thyroid disease and cancer.
Producing these so-called “forever chemicals” — their chemical stability means they don’t break down in the environment — has cost Minnesotans dearly.
The chemicals migrated through landfill soil into four aquifers used for drinking water in the East Metro and ended up in groundwater beneath and downslope from four 3M disposal sites, the state said in its lawsuit.
The state alleged that beginning in the 1950s, for more than 40 years, 3M dumped “massive quantities” of waste containing perfluorocarbons at four sites east of the Twin Cities:
- The Chemolite plant in Cottage Grove, where 3M disposed of waste mostly in unlined disposal areas and disposed of perfluorocarbons directly into the Mississippi River.
- A disposal site in Oakdale, where 3M dumped waste in unlined pits prior to 1959, according to a company document.
- A site on the border of Cottage Grove and Woodbury, where 3M dumped waste in unlined trenches from 1960 to 1966.
- The Washington County Landfill in Lake Elmo, where 3M sent waste from at least 1971 to 1974.
The company still produces PFAS at its Cottage Grove plant — where it makes materials used to manufacture adhesives, abrasives, specialty films and reflective technologies — although regulators now monitor the wastewater discharges.
3M said fluorochemicals can be safely manufactured for use in many modern products, including life-saving medications, cars, smartphones and computers. Some products — like semiconductors used in modern electronics — cannot be made without the use of fluorochemistries, 3M said.
But all these years later, the company continues to mismanage its waste. Last year, a two-year Minnesota Pollution Control Agency investigation found the company mismanaged hazardous waste shipped to its Cottage Grove incinerator, resulting in a $2.8 million penalty.
MPCA said the company did not properly record, store, inspect and dispose of hazardous waste at its manufacturing and waste incineration facility.
The investigation found a container of hydrofluoric acid — an extremely toxic chemical compound — releasing gas into the air. An additional 901 hazardous waste containers containing hydrofluoric acid, some with bulging barrel lids, were stored throughout the Cottage Grove facility, the MPCA said.
Oakdale mayor drinks tap water to prove its safety
In the 1940s and 1950s, 3M hired private contractors to dispose of waste from its manufacturing plants in 60 acres of undeveloped, low land in what is now Oakdale.
In 1981, the MPCA received a tip that waste was buried at the Oakdale site until about 1950, when it was sealed in drums along the Mississippi River at the Cottage Grove Chemolite Plant until about 1955.
But it would be over 20 years before the Minnesota Department of Health developed the capability to analyze the presence of the chemicals in the water.
In 2005, chemicals were detected in five Oakdale city water wells — and the town became the second U.S. city to find such contamination, according to an MPR report at the time.
When state officials announced that the drinking water was contaminated, then-Oakdale Mayor Carmen Sarrack assured residents the amount of chemicals was so negligible that the water was safe to drink, and he took a drink of tap water to prove it.
At the time, the state’s recommended limit for a chemical called PFOS in drinking water was 1 part per billion, and 7 ppb for a chemical called PFOA.
Regulators now think they vastly underestimated the risk.
The EPA recently issued interim drinking water health advisories saying the chemicals can have negative health effects even at near-zero concentrations over a person’s lifetime. The agency is considering limiting PFOS to .02 parts per trillion, and PFOA to .004 parts per trillion.
The EPA also recently proposed designating two perfluorochemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, and plans to propose a national drinking water perfluorochemical regulation.
Minnesota health and pollution regulators said evolving science may require Minnesota to lower its current thresholds to protect public health.
In late 2006, the Health Department detected chemicals in municipal wells in Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Hastings, St. Paul Park and South St. Paul, putting 67,000 people at risk.
Oakdale was ground zero: It had the highest levels of groundwater contamination among all the cities affected.
3M paid $10 million for a water treatment system in Oakdale in 2006 and helped Lake Elmo provide municipal water service to two neighborhoods.
David Sunding, a University of California Berkeley professor, published a report in 2017 saying Washington County residents had elevated rates of bladder, breast, kidney and prostate cancers, as well as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Sunding was to be an expert witness in the state’s lawsuit against 3M.
Sunding found a city reeling from the chemicals’ effects:
- Low birth weight and premature births were over 30% more likely, while the fertility rate was about 16% lower in Oakdale prior to 2006, when the filtration was installed.
- Overall cancer rates were elevated in Oakdale compared to unaffected surrounding communities.
- There was a statistically significant increase in the probability of a child’s death including cancer or cancer-related diseases in Oakdale.
- A person who died in Oakdale between 2003 and 2015 was 19% more likely to have had cancer than a person living in surrounding, unaffected communities.
But Minnesotans who think they have been sickened by 3M chemicals have struggled to get the kind of help found elsewhere. Such as West Virginia.
Robert Bilott sued DuPont in West Virginia over chemicals polluting farmland near its Teflon plant and won a landmark 2004 settlement, inspiring a book and the 2019 film “Dark Waters.” In the 1940s, DuPont patented the chemical polytetrafluoroethylene as Teflon. 3M manufactured the chemical for DuPont beginning in the 1950s.
Oakdale residents asked Bilott for help, and he joined a Minnesota lawsuit against 3M. But Minnesota law doesn’t allow medical monitoring claims to be pursued in class action suits. So the Minnesota case did not lead to the kind of settlement obtained in West Virginia, where thousands of people were monitored and an independent panel of scientists later linked chemical exposure in drinking water to six diseases, including two types of cancer. Minnesotans can sue 3M individually, which is more expensive, but not as a class.
The judge overseeing the case, Washington County District Judge Mary Hannon, later confirmed to Bloomberg in 2018 that her father worked for 3M for about 40 years, but she decided not to recuse herself. She did, however, find 3M acted with reckless disregard, allowing the plaintiffs to pursue punitive damages.
But by then the lawsuit was narrowed to damage to property values and negligence in handling the chemicals. Lawyers weren’t allowed to discuss whether the chemicals were harmful. A jury decided in 3M’s favor in 2009.
Several people recently told the Reformer they’re working with attorneys on a new lawsuit against 3M, but attorneys involved in past suits say first Minnesota lawmakers need to change the law to allow medical monitoring claims.
‘I don’t wanna die’
Oakdale residents say dying at a young age of cancer became almost routine a couple of decades ago.
During Amara Strande’s senior year, her best friend’s mom died of cancer. Another girl’s dad died of cancer. Another student’s mom died.
“Like four parents of students died that year,” Strande said.
And then there were the students.
Jan Churchill, who taught math at the high school for 19 years and now substitute teaches there, began organizing an annual Relay for Life cancer fundraiser in 2002, when 16-year-old student Katie Jurek was diagnosed with bone cancer. Tartan High has consistently hosted a top cancer fundraiser in the nation ever since.
“I mean the number of students who died and got cancer … it was insane,” said Churchill, who thought twice before drinking from the school water fountains after learning 3M dumped chemical waste in the Oakdale area for years.
Katelyn O’Connell grew up about a block from Tartan High School. When she was 12 years old, she began struggling to run down the basketball court.
She started getting nosebleeds at night that left her pillow and blankets blood-soaked. She was diagnosed with leukemia.
“I took one look at my mom and whipped back and said ‘I don’t wanna die!’ ” she said in a recent interview. “I didn’t even really know what cancer was.”
She recovered after three years of chemotherapy. Three people her age also got cancer; two of them died, she said.
One of them was Nikki Schaut, another Tartan student O’Connell met at a hospital. Schaut had abdominal cancer and died at age 16.
O’Connell had a full knee replacement in high school and used a wheelchair for four years.
Now 30, she can’t run or ride a bike and still has some pain. She works in a lab and lives in the Oakdale home her family bought in 1994; it was the first house they owned.
Her dad, Jim, said he never heard about 3M chemical contamination until numerous people got cancer in the area.
“We learned this area was just a dumping ground,” he said. “They shouldn’t have put it where it would leach into the water.”
It was a 3M community, with employees everywhere. It’s also a great neighborhood, he said. He never considered moving — even after his daughter got sick — because he believed city officials when they said the water was safe. He drinks three huge jugs of tap water every day.
“I’m still vertical,” he said.
But he wonders if his daughter got cancer because she was exposed to chemicals while young. He’s not a litigious person, but he’d like his daughter to be compensated for her pain and struggles, as well as other families.
“Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children,” he said.
Within a few months of O’Connell’s diagnosis, her brother’s best friend, Derek Lowen, who lived a few blocks away, fell ill at age 14. A tumor the size of a baseball was found in his brain.
“I had some pretty gnarly headaches,” he said in an interview.
The tumor was removed during an eight-hour surgery, after which he had to learn to walk again.
He wonders about the fenced property a few miles from his childhood home — topped with barbed wire — where 3M dumped chemical waste.
The tumor affected his motor skills and short-term memory. He’s married now, and a couple of years ago learned he may not be able to have children of his own.
Lowen now lives south of Oakdale in Cottage Grove, where 3M made chemicals for decades. He wonders about the fenced, wooded 3M land where he takes his dogs for walks.
He filters all of his water.
Whistleblower: ‘3M owned Minnesota’
Two years after 3M agreed to start phasing out production of the chemical used in Scotchgard, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed a former high-ranking 3M employee, Sheryl Corrigan, to be commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2002. Pawlenty said he was looking for an environmental watchdog with a business perspective.
In 1998, when she was a senior 3M environmental engineer, Corrigan told Cottage Grove citizens that wastewater from the Chemolite plant being discharged into the Mississippi River was clean, according to a MPR report.
MPCA scientist Fardin Oliaei was one of the first to research the spread of perfluorochemicals in the state, beginning in 2002.
“I think I was the one who opened a can of worms,” she said in an interview.
In 2005, Oliaei found chemical levels downstream from the Cottage Grove plant were “among the highest concentrations reported anywhere in the world.” One sample from a white bass showed a PFOS level of 29,600 parts per billion — so high they retested it to be sure it was correct.
She found “extremely high levels” of chemicals in fish in the Boundary Waters.
“That was when we linked it to the fingerprint of 3M,” she said. “Then I started looking closer to home. The closer I got to 3M, I was punished for that.”
Oliaei said she was barred from talking about her findings and had research funding cut. Oliaei said as coordinator of the emerging contaminants program, she learned the state banned sampling fish for PFAS, presumably to protect 3M.
MPCA higher-ups told her they were a regulatory agency, and if she wanted to do research, she should go into academics.
“I was hired as a scientist,” Oliaei said.
Corrigan didn’t return a call seeking comment, but in a 2005 MPR interview, she said the state should rely on the EPA — rather than her pollution control agency — to research the dangers of 3M chemicals.
“I’m not sure that research scientists belong at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency,” she told MPR. “And there might very well be fluorochemicals in our waters that we need to deal with, but until we have the right science to move forward on, it doesn’t make sense.”
3M and its allies had reason to forestall scrutiny, regulation and sanction: The company was booking a half billion dollars per year from the chemicals, year after year.
Oliaei filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Corrigan and top managers. She said she was forced out in 2006 and settled the lawsuit for what amounted to three years’ salary — 40% of which went toward legal fees.
A single mother of two, she was left uninsured and unable to afford her home. She said the state took away her livelihood, security and vitality.
But she could sleep at night.
Oliaei said she went back to school and didn’t get another job until the end of 2014. She now lives on the East Coast and works in health care. She said “corrupted, guilty politicians” ruined her career.
“It is a dirty, dirty story,” she said. “3M owned Minnesota.”
After Corrigan left the MPCA, she went to work for Koch Industries, where she is director of “environmental, health and safety.” The state of Minnesota is suing three Koch Industries entities, alleging the company spent millions lying to the public about climate change.
Oakdale high school had jocks, nerds and ‘cancer kids’
John Leibel was born in Oakdale and graduated from Tartan High School in 2004.
At THS, there were the nerds, the jocks, and “the cancer kids.”
How many got cancer?
“More than I can count,” he said. “It was such a normal thing to be around cancer, growing up in Oakdale.”
It was such a normal thing to be around cancer, growing up in Oakdale.
His friend Katie Jurek had bone cancer.
He graduated in 2004 and went to the doctor a couple of years later because he had a persistent cough, swelling, itching and “the sweats.” He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma two years later, at age 20. One day, Jurek called to ask how he was doing. She’d heard.
“I wanted to hide the fact that I was sick as well,” Leibel said. “She said, ‘I know you’re lying to me. You’re part of the club now.’ ”
A wrestler, his body was able to withstand the punishing chemotherapy and radiation.
Jurek wasn’t so fortunate: Her leg had to be amputated, and she died two years later.
Leibel is 36 now and has since toured the world as a guitarist for the heavy metal band Thor. He gets sick easily and says COVID-19 nearly killed him.
Leibel was involved in the class action lawsuit Bilott helped with. Leibel hopes someone tries again. He said he had a lot of friends get sick.
The reason, he suspects: “We all drank the same water.”
State settles with 3M for $850 million
The former attorney general who sued 3M in 2010 said she struggled with 3M’s connections to state government.
3M was “very plugged in,” Swanson said in an interview.
Some state employees would go to work for 3M, and vice versa. She sat through a couple different governors’ state of the state addresses in which they thanked 3M even though she was suing the company.
For two decades, the state health department minimized 3M chemicals’ threat, Swanson said. In fact, 3M was going to call the health department as a witness, she said.
“We would’ve had to cross-examine the health department,” she said.
Days before the 3M trial was set to begin in 2018, the health department released a report contradicting, in part, Swanson’s experts. The report said they didn’t find spikes in cancer, premature births or low-birthweight babies in parts of Washington County where the groundwater was contaminated by 3M chemicals.
“In many ways it sounded very similar to what 3M said,” Swanson said.
In fact, to this day, 3M points to the study to buttress its contention that the overall cancer rate in Washington County was found to be “virtually identical” to the statewide average.
At the time, however, a leaked MDH email said the report was rushed out, and that the underlying cancer data was “weak.”
“If they were rushing to get it out before the trial, that’s pretty bizarre,” Swanson said.
How did the MDH move affect the lawsuit?
“It certainly didn’t help,” she said.
Her office checked to see if there were any communications between 3M and MDH about the report, but she couldn’t substantiate anything.
Instead, she blames so-called regulatory capture — that’s when regulatory agencies get too friendly with the industries they regulate.
“They just were pretty cozy and were not sufficiently zealous,” Swanson said.
From 2012 to 2019, then-MPCA commissioner John Linc Stine was one of two trustees of the state’s natural resources and closely involved with the lawsuit. He is less critical of the health department, where he worked from 2005 to 2011.
“I just know how I fought with 3M when I was at the health department,” he said. “There was no buddy-buddy relationship with 3M while I was there.”
From 2006 to 2009, he estimates 60% of his life was spent dealing with 3M water contamination issues.
“We were going after 3M on almost every angle we could imagine,” Stine said.
But he said deep-pocketed corporations can frustrate state regulators.
“What frustrated me when I was dealing with them is the lengths 3M would go to not tell us things,” said Stine, who is now executive director at Freshwater, which is dedicated to water education and policy. “It’s a tough tightrope for the state government folks.”
Swanson said the health department report was plagued with “flawed, rudimentary analysis.” Still, the report found elevated rates of childhood cancer in Oakdale from 1999 to 2014, compared to the rest of the state. And, premature births in Oakdale dropped after the city began filtering water in 2006.
Washington County was also home to 28% more cases of chronic lymphocytic leukemia than the rest of the state from 1999 to 2013.
Ben Rule, who grew up in Oakdale near Tartan High School, was diagnosed at 16 with acute lymphocytic leukemia, cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Rule developed severe pancreatitis, had to have his spleen removed, got Type 1 diabetes, and had a hip replacement.
He survived five years of chemotherapy and was on the state’s list of potential witnesses in its 3M lawsuit. But days after the MDH study was released, on the very morning the case was scheduled to go to trial, Swanson and 3M settled for $850 million.
‘There’s just so much rage’
Petra Jacobsen fell ill in 2011, when she was 11.
She was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer in soft tissue. She went through a year of chemotherapy and nine months of radiation.
Jacobsen lost her hair and was bullied by her fellow middle schoolers. The annual Relay for Life put the spotlight on her and other sick kids, so while everybody seemed to know her name and had a lot of questions for her, she felt ostracized.
“I lost a lot of friends when I got sick,” she said. “No one really wanted to be friends with the sick, bald girl I guess.”
Amara Strande said many young people who get cancer are left with those kinds of scars, for which there isn’t enough help. Kids get a death sentence, and then if they make it through, they don’t know what to do with their newfound lease on life.
The four tumors Amara had removed in New York are back, now worse than ever. Last spring, her right arm began to feel like she was putting a fork into an electric socket. More tumors grew next to her heart, with one wrapping around her upper right chest, fracturing her ribs.
They can’t do surgery this time.
They moved to their Woodbury home just south of 3M headquarters — surrounded by the homes of 3M employees — when Amara was about 3 years old.
Amara’s father, Michael, is a Catholic liturgical director.
“It’s been very hard to watch her life through this process,” he said of Amara. “She’s still pursuing her own dreams even though this cancer right now seems to be winning.”
Her mother said of her daughter, “There’s just so much rage.”
When she was young, Amara dreamed of becoming a famous pop singer like Hannah Montana.
Now she tries not to plan beyond three months at a time, but she still has goals: She wants to expand her social media presence, which she uses to help connect people with the same rare type of cancer. She wants to finish an album of songs written through Teen Cancer America. She’s a patient advocate at Mayo Clinic.
She was recently accepted to the elite Minnesota Chorale and offered an internship at Good Trouble, where she wants to write music for video games.
Weeks ago, Amara met with two dozen friends and a hospital social worker to talk about how to handle death. To tell them not to distance themselves.
Her doctors are trying a drug that’s been somewhat effective on fibrolamellar tumors in mice — the same creatures that first alerted 3M to the toxicity of its chemicals.
“If this doesn’t work, I’m f***ed,” Amara said. “For the first time in five years, I’m not sick because of the treatment, I’m sick because of the cancer.”
In recent weeks, she was hospitalized and is no longer able to use her right hand.
“It’s been rough lately,” she said in a text.
Amara’s not sure what caused her cancer, she just knows she grew up with an inordinate number of cancer victims.
“I don’t know if 3M is responsible for causing my cancer,” she said. “I don’t know if they did it or not, but they know that what they were producing was toxic. I wish they would just admit that they were dumping these horrible chemicals, admit that it was wrong and that they were doing it instead of hiding it.”