By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
While teaching at Ashland College in northern Wisconsin, she was recruited by the MPCA, where she specialized in studying persistent bioaccumulative toxic pollutants—synthetic compounds that, when released into the environmental, build up in the food chain. By all accounts, Oliaei was a hard worker, often poring over her research into the late hours. She was also willing to stand up for herself when she thought she'd been wronged. In May 2000, Oliaei filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission after being passed over for a promotion. In a negotiated settlement, Oliaei and the MPCA agreed to let the state Department of Employee Relations adjudicate the matter; later that year, the DOER found in Oliaei's favor, and she was awarded the designation of Research Scientist Level 3.
Not long after, Oliaei was promoted to head the MPCA's emerging-contaminant program. As Oliaei reviewed the latest scholarly literature, she became increasingly curious about the potential human health hazards posed by PFCs. In laboratory studies, mainly those involving rats, exposure to PFCs had been shown to produce certain cancers, along with a variety of damaging effects on the animals' organs and hormonal functions. Given her new title and previous research into other persistent toxins such as dioxin and a flame retardant called PBDE, it made sense that Oliaei would be interested in studying PFCs. And then of course there was a pressing local angle: Minnesota, in particular, seemed to be an ideal place to conduct research, since it was one of just two states where PFCs were manufactured in large quantities. For the better part of the past century, Oliaei knew, PFCs had been released in discharges to the Mississippi from the 3M Company's manufacturing facility at Cottage Grove. It has also been dumped at several waste disposal sites in the east metro.
In 2001, Oliaei cobbled together a proposal requesting that the agency fund a study to see whether PFCs might be present in the fish populations in Voyageurs National Park, which is located along the Canadian border about 280 miles from 3M's Cottage Grove facility. She figured the findings might contribute to the understanding of how far the chemicals move, and by what means. The results? Half the fish in the study were found to be contaminated with PFOS—what Oliaei refers to as "the chemical fingerprint of 3M." Armed with the new information—along with mounting data related to PFC toxicity in animal studies—Oliaei began to aggressively pursue funding for a more comprehensive examination of Minnesota's PFC problems.
Over and over, Oliaei says, she was rebuffed in those efforts. After her supervisors rejected her $140,000 study plan, she resubmitted a far more modest proposal, requesting just $14,000. That application was also denied. Frustrated, Oliaei met with her supervisor, Marvin Hora, to make her case for a further investigation. According to a federal lawsuit she later filed against the agency, Hora responded with a blunt retort, telling Oliaei, "I have the power and I will terminate the [emerging contaminant] program and you are the only one in the program." In a subsequent meeting, Oliaei alleged, Hora explained that the agency had "lost its trust in her because she had betrayed the MPCA family and sought help outside the agency"—a reference to Oliaei's successful promotion complaint to the EEOC. (In response to a request for an interview, Hora said that he is "not interested" in discussing the lawsuit or Oliaei's accusations). Oliaei then went to Hora's supervisor, Mike Sandusky, who, Oliaei says, was similarly dismissive of her overtures.
After that, Oliaei decided to go the top, firing off an e-mail to request a meeting with the newly appointed commissioner of the MPCA, Sheryl Corrigan. A month passed before Oliaei got her face-to-face with the commissioner. According to Oliaei, she presented Corrigan with copies of her proposals for investigations into PFCs, along with another bioaccumulative toxin she was interested in, the flame retardant PBDE. The meeting did not go as Oliaei had hoped. "She [Corrigan] said, 'It seems that you have a passion for science. This is a regulatory agency, not a scientific institute.'" Oliaei was taken aback by the response—her job title, after all, was research scientist. "I asked her, 'What are you trying to tell me?' She said, 'I am strongly suggesting you look for work elsewhere.' I told her I loved my job."
Through MPCA communications director Ralph Heussner, Corrigan declined to discuss the matter. However, according to Heussner, Corrigan disputes having ever talked to Oliaei about PFCs. The commissioner's reluctance to speak about the matter is understandable. Before she was appointed to run the MPCA by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Corrigan worked as an environmental manager at 3M. In that capacity, she was responsible for water quality issues. When the PFC issue first surfaced in Cottage Grove in the late '90s, Corrigan appeared at a public hearing in the town. According to news reports, Corrigan assured residents that the water the company discharged into the Mississippi was clean and safe.
In order to avoid a conflict of interest, Corrigan has formally recused herself from all matters involving PFCs and 3M. Over the past year, when the Minnesota Senate Environment Committee conducted a series of hearings on the PFC issue, Corrigan cited that recusal as grounds for refusing to testify or even appear at the hearings. While Corrigan told Minnesota Public Radio that she withdrew herself from all matters involving 3M at the beginning of her tenure, she didn't file a formal letter of recusal until June 2004—a full year and a half after her appointment. State Sen. John Marty, who chairs the Environment Committee and is regarded as one of the legislature's most persistent good-government advocates, raises his eyebrow at the time lag. "I don't think it's a sincere recusal," Marty says. "I think it's an effort not to talk to us."