When Good Science is Bad Politics

A troublesome family of synthetic chemicals called PFCs—many of them produced in Minnesota—is turning up in the bodies of people and animals worldwide. So why did the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency force its leading PFC researcher, Dr. F

ON A LATE AFTERNOON IN EARLY FEBRUARY, DR. FARDIN OLIAEI drove to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency headquarters in St. Paul one last time. She had come for a bitter chore—to clean out her office and close a chapter in her life. Oliaei had worked at the MPCA for 16 years. A chemist and biologist by training, with a Ph.D. in environmental sciences, she spent the last five years as coordinator of the agency's emerging contaminants program, where she spearheaded the agency's research into the sorts of obscure and poorly understood pollutants that most laypeople have never heard of. But to Oliaei, the job was as much a calling as a career. Since 2001, she had become especially passionate about her investigation of a family of synthetic compounds called perfluorochemicals, or PFCs. That Oliaei would be interested in PFCs made plenty of sense. The compounds—developed for use in an array of stain- and water-resistant products—had been detected in the blood of people and animals worldwide. From the outset, Oliaei suspected that Minnesota would prove to be ground zero for PFC contamination, because the 3M Company had manufactured and disposed of the compounds here for five decades.

It was a little after 5:30 when Oliaei arrived at the MPCA's HQ, a blockish red brick building on Lafayette Road not far from the Capitol. Oliaei had not set foot in the MPCA offices since October, when she left the country to visit her ailing mother in Tehran. By the time she returned the next month, she found herself on formal administrative leave, awaiting the resolution of a lawsuit she'd filed against the MPCA; its commissioner, Sheryl Corrigan; and three supervisors. After such a long absence, it felt strange to return to her old workplace. At the front desk, Oliaei recalls, she was confronted by two security guards. Given her long tenure at the agency, she was surprised when they asked her to surrender her driver's license at the door. Oliaei took this strict adherence to security protocols as a sort of final kick in the shins. That perception was only heightened when the guards, along with the MPCA's head of human resources, trailed Oliaei to her third-floor cubicle and hovered over her as she gathered up her possessions. A few years earlier, Oliaei alleged in a lawsuit, the same HR director had warned her that she would be forced from her job if she "took any action" against the agency. Now the prediction had come to pass.

Dan Picasso

Over the next two hours, Oliaei and two friends boxed up her belongings: a mountain of paperwork, books, teaching materials, and other items she'd accrued during her time at the agency. By the time they were finished packing, they had filled about 40 boxes. Oliaei had planned to spend some of her final hours at the office browsing through computer files. There was a lot of information on her hard drive that she hoped to retrieve: a folder with contacts for scientists with whom she'd worked over the years, a raft of personal e-mails, a digital photo from her father's funeral three years earlier, and, of course, the vast amount of correspondences and hard data she collected in her years researching PFCs and other pollutants. When she asked about access to the computer, she says, she was informed that the computer was state property and that she was no longer a state employee. If she wanted anything, she should present a formal list. That final rebuff hit her hard. "After that, I was just numb and disappointed," Oliaei says. "I wanted to focus on getting my stuff and leaving."

Despite the fact that her employment at the agency had come to an end, Oliaei still had plenty of work to complete. In a matter of weeks, she expected to testify before the Minnesota Senate's Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which has held a series of hearings on PFC pollution in Minnesota and the MPCA's response to the problem. Since being placed on leave in November, Oliaei had continued to work on the report. Sometimes she collaborated with her former MPCA colleagues via e-mail, other times she pounded away feverishly in the dead of night. In a sleepless three-day period before the most recent Senate hearing, she finally wrapped the report, titled "Investigation of Perfluorochemical Contamination in Minnesota: Phase One." The 76-page document—which was not released under the MPCA's imprint and does not appear on the agency's website—included reams of data, recommended courses of actions, and one fairly stunning kicker.

The latter concerned the results of blood tests on nine fish taken from the Mississippi River last October. The fish had come from waters just downstream from the 3M chemical plant in Cottage Grove. By the MPCA's projections, 3M discharged as much as 50,000 pounds of PFCs into the river annually for the past five decades. While 3M discontinued the practice in 2002, Oliaei reported, some of the fish from the sampling still contained remarkably high levels of a particular PFC, called PFOS. In one white bass, Oliaei reported, the PFOS concentration was 11 times higher than any previously found in a wild animal: 29,600 parts per trillion. "What we found is just off the charts. This is a huge and very alarming number," Oliaei would say later. "It is very bad news."

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