By CP Staff
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Chris Parker
By Jesse Marx
By John Baichtal
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Jesse Marx
By Olivia LaVecchia
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.
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."
T HE FIRST INTENSIVE RESEARCH into the presence of PFCs in Minnesota's environment commenced almost by accident. In 1997, the 3M Company—which manufactured PFCs for application in an array of products designed to resist heat, stains, and water—was conducting routine tests on its workers at a plant in Cottage Grove. For control purposes, the company also obtained blood samples from the Red Cross. The findings were startling. It wasn't just that the blood from employees was contaminated with PFCs. That much had been known for at least two decades. But almost all the samples taken from the general population also contained detectable levels of two PFCs that were manufactured by 3M—PFOS (which was used in Scotchgard) and PFOA (used in nonstick cookware and produced by the breakdown of other PFCs used in fast-food wrappings and other stain-resistant coatings).
From the perspective of both public health and corporate liability, the implications of the blood findings were patently worrisome. So worrisome, in fact, that 3M proceeded to commission a series of studies aimed at more broadly gauging the extent of PFOS distribution in the environment. If the results of the blood bank tests were a surprise, what came next was an even bigger shock. Trace levels of PFOS were turning up in blood samples taken from animals across the globe: polar bears in the Arctic, albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean, and turtles in the southeast U.S. were all affected. In other words, PFOS seemed to fit the textbook definition of what environmental scientists refer to as a "persistent bioaccumulative toxin." The revelations were so startling that within a year 3M promised the Environmental Protection Agency that it would entirely phase out its production of PFOS-related PFCs.
That most people currently living on this planet have been exposed to PFCs is now a matter of received wisdom. If you are like 90 percent of the population, there are detectable levels of a PFC in your blood serum. And if you happen to live near former 3M waste disposal sites in Cottage Grove or Oakdale—where PFCs have found their way into the aquifers and contaminated drinking water supplies—you likely have even higher levels. Because of the peculiar durability of these compounds, their continued presence in the environment (and in people and animals) is virtually assured. The most pressing question, then: Is exposure to PFCs hazardous to your health? If so, at what level? On this point, there is considerable uncertainty within the scientific community. The two U.S. corporations mostly closely associated with PFCs—3M and Dupont—have both consistently contended that PFC exposure does not constitute a threat to human health. They also both face class action lawsuits from people who don't believe that's the case.
In a letter to an EPA science advisory board last June, Dr. Larry Zobel—vice president and medical director at 3M—contended that long-term mortality studies of 3M workers at Cottage Grove did not suggest any increased cancer rates from exposure to PFCs. That was significant, since 3M workers had some of the highest PFOA exposure on record. Zobel acknowledged that one study examining health outcomes at another 3M facility located in Decatur, Alabama, did suggest higher rates of bladder cancer. But those results, Zobel added, were "not confirmed by a subsequent incidence study." For its part, Dupont has been more recalcitrant in its assessment of potential hazards of PFOA, a compound the company has long used in the manufacture of its blockbuster product, Teflon-brand nonstick cookware. Dupont, which continues to manufacture Teflon, has paid a price for its handling of the issue. Facing allegations that it concealed scientific evidence about potential health and environmental hazards, the company was targeted in a federal probe. In December, it agreed to pay the EPA more than $10 million in fines and to fund more than $6 million of research.
None of that has stanched the concern over the ubiquity of PFCs. For instance, while Dupont has continued to insist that consumers need not fear their cookware, the company has acknowledged that the same cannot be said of their pet birds. That's because overheated Teflon pans can release fumes that are lethal to birds. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, each year hundreds of so-called "canaries in the kitchen" die from exposure to the fumes. Certainly, birds have different and much more fragile respiratory systems than people. But the phenomenon, referred to as "Teflon toxicosis," can also manifest itself in nonfatal form in humans who inhale those same fumes, in a flu-like condition called polymer fume fever.
In May 2000, Charles Auer, the director of the EPA's Chemical Control Division of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, put the emerging view of PFOS in a stark perspective. "PFOS accumulates to a high degree in humans and animals," Auer wrote. "It thus appears to combine persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree." For Dupont and 3M, the most legally problematic finding regarding PFOA, meanwhile, came this February, when a 16-member EPA scientific advisory panel recommended that the EPA classify the compound as a "likely human carcinogen."
Dr. Ron Melnick, a toxicologist who served on the panel, says the recommendation was based mainly on studies in rats showing that PFOA exposure caused tumors in "multiple sites." That was not the only aspect of the PFOA studies that caused panel members concern. According to Melnick, other studies showed that rats exposed to PFOA in utero suffered from decreased body weight, as well as abnormal hormonal function. If those manifestations extend to humans, that is bad news indeed. "One of the biggest issues is the persistence of this chemical. It stays in the body for years and it seems to be in just about everybody," Melnick explains. "The fact that it is so persistent, and that it transfers from mother to fetus, raises significant concerns." For that reason, he says, the EPA is now embarking on large-scale epidemiological studies of Dupont employees in West Virginia.
James Kelly, a health assessor with the Minnesota Department of Health who has worked on the PFC issue, cautions that the EPA panel's recommendation may not be as scary as it sounds. "The press picks up on this term 'likely human carcinogen' and to the layman, that means, 'If I'm exposed to this, I'm likely to get cancer,'" Kelly offers. That, he says, is not the case. He points out that industry-sponsored epidemiological studies of workers exposed to PFCs at high levels have yet to produce the sort of smoking-gun evidence that you would expect to see if PFCs were extremely toxic. And what of the results of laboratory studies with rats and other animals? Extrapolating from animal studies, Kelly responds, is at best a problematic undertaking: "We're not giant rats. We're different than these animals they use in these studies." In the interest of precaution, Kelly adds, the Department of Health has established some very "conservative values" for safe levels of PFCs in drinking water.
"The risks we're talking about are pretty low," Kelly says. "We establish our drinking water values on the assumption that if 100,000 people were to drink two liters a day for 70 years, we wouldn't expect more than one of them to experience an adverse health impact. If the EPA would come out with more advice tomorrow, we'd be very interested." For PFOA, the department's limit is seven parts per billion; for PFOS, one part per billion. In communities where the PFC levels have exceeded those thresholds—in Oakdale, near the site of a former 3M dump; and Lake Elmo, where 3M also disposed of PFC-laden wastes—residents have been given carbon filtration systems or supplied with bottled water.
Is Kelly wrong about the potential hazards of PFC exposure? With so much of the basic research yet to be completed, it's hard to know. But in Fardin Oliaei's view, the Department of Health standards fail to account for the most vulnerable routes of exposure—mother to child. And, she adds, drinking water is hardly the only medium of exposure. Given the global dispersal of PFCs, it is evident that the compounds are moving not just through water, but through the air, the soil, and the food chain. How they are moving—and how they are affecting the living things with which they come into contact—remains a source of considerable mystery.
W ITH HER ATHLETIC BUILD, stylish short-cropped hair, and upright bearing, Oliaei looks younger than her 51 years. A native of Tehran, she speaks with a heavy accent. Occasionally, you can almost see her translating in her head as she reaches for an appropriate idiom. The language hurdle aside, she can be disarmingly frank, especially when discussing someone she disrespects. She bitterly describes one former colleague as "a beast, the most corrupted person at the agency." She is no less blunt in her critique of the MPCA, where she spent the bulk of her career. "You know where the money in this agency goes?" she asks. "Making second-class citizens of staff and scientists."
Oliaei grew up in a family where educational accomplishment was highly prized. Her late father, Aliakbar, owned a profitable construction business. A self-taught man, Aliakbar had a special enthusiasm for orchids and exotic plants. He also had a philanthropic streak and told Fardin that he dreamed of building a hospital for the poor where all seven of his children could practice medicine. Aliakbar did contribute to construction of a hospital in northern Iran, Oliaei says, but neither she nor her six siblings ever worked there. All of Aliakbar's offspring did go on to distinguish themselves in various academic pursuits, however, ranging from law to neurosurgery to engineering. Oliaei obtained a bachelor's degree in chemistry at National University in Tehran in the mid-1970s, just before the Iranian revolution. After that, she moved to the U.S., where she enrolled at Western Michigan University and earned a master's in biology.
For her Ph.D. in environmental sciences, Oliaei wanted to attend a more prestigious school than Western Michigan—maybe the University of Michigan or Michigan State. But by that time, the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy had created a much less hospitable climate for Iranian students. Some schools, she remembers, refused to accept her application. "I wanted to go back home, use my degree to do something," Oliaei says. "My father called me and said, 'You haven't been here since the revolution. Iran is not the place for a woman right now. Stay there and continue your Ph.D.'" So Oliaei remained at Western Michigan and completed her doctorate.
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."
Whatever may have been said at that 2003 meeting between Corrigan and Oliaei, other MPCA managers suggest that Oliaei's push for further investigation into PFC contamination was simply too aggressive—and expensive. In that, they seem to echo Corrigan's alleged contention that the MPCA is no place for primary research. As Mike Sandusky, one of Oliaei's former supervisors, puts it: "Without unlimited budgets the state has to be very careful on how it spends its money. We're very careful, in particular, with the notion of spending money on primary research when we know that the EPA is conducting a lot of primary research with these chemicals."
As Oliaei continued to demand more funds, her relationship with her supervisors continued to deteriorate. The rapport took a dramatic downturn last winter after Oliaei gave a series of interviews about PFCs to Minnesota Public Radio, which produced the first significant reporting on the subject in the state. Last April, in the wake of those interviews, Oliaei received a formal reprimand from her supervisor, Paul Hoff, who contended that Oliaei had violated the MPCA's media policy. While the two-page letter was short on specifics, its tone was both accusatory and threatening. Oliaei, Hoff wrote, "misstated" facts and the agency's position and "dishonored the hard work of our colleagues." Effective immediately, Hoff added, Oliaei was to notify him right away if she received any further contacts from the media. The reprimand concluded with the warning that any further violations of the MPCA's media policy could lead to "further disciplinary action up to and including discharge."
For Oliaei, that was the final straw. She took her complaint to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that specializes in providing legal assistance to government whistleblowers. Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, says he was impressed by Oliaei and appalled by her story. "We don't represent everyone who comes walking through the door. But her experience was very compelling. The agency didn't care what she said to her colleagues. They cared what was said to the public. It seemed like a classic First Amendment case," Ruch says. "If Fardin's research hadn't focused on a chemical made by the state's largest manufacturer, she'd probably still be working with the MPCA."
While Oliaei often found herself at odds with her supervisors at the MPCA, others who worked with her speak admiringly of both her commitment and competence. "To me, she seemed very competent and certainly enthusiastic. I was happy to work with her," says Mark Riggs, a chemist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources who collected fish samples on a 10-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in 2004 and 2005 for Oliaei. Riggs viewed Oliaei as persistent, though not disrespectful. "I wouldn't say she was constantly ripping on people. But she didn't seem to be afraid of stepping on toes to get things done," Riggs observes, adding: "I never had any reason to question her skills or her agenda. She wanted to do good science. And as far as I can tell, she was doing good science."
When Oliaei resigned her position this February—in exchange for dropping a whistleblower lawsuit filed in federal court, she was given a $325,000 settlement—outraged scientists and environmentalists sent letters condemning the MPCA to both Commissioner Corrigan and her boss, Governor Pawlenty. In one such missive, Ake Bergman, a prominent Swedish researcher who serves as the chair of environmental chemistry at Stockholm University, praised Oliaei's "pioneering research." In Bergman's view, Oliaei's work has been of "significant value to other scientists throughout the world." Bergman denounced the MPCA's treatment of Oliaei as "deeply tragic and extremely counterproductive."
State Senator Marty, who has repeatedly called Oliaei to testify at Senate hearings, says he, too, is impressed with the researcher. He is less charitable in his estimation of the MPCA leadership. "It's absolutely shameful the way they treated her," Marty asserts. "Sometimes an agency will fire an employee because they're not doing their work. In effect, the MPCA fired Oliaei because she was doing her work." Marty says Oliaei's story is emblematic of institutional mission drift, with the MPCA increasingly aligning itself with polluters—or, in the agency jargon, "stakeholders"—rather than the general public. By way of example, he cites the well publicized case of biologist Tyrone Hayes, who was "dis-invited" by Commissioner Corrigan from giving the keynote address at an MPCA conference in 2004. The reason, in the view of Marty and other critics, was that Hayes might offend the state's powerful agriculture industry since Hayes's research has suggested a link between the popular herbicide atrazine and frog abnormalities.
At the MPCA, opinions about Oliaei are expressed more guardedly. Given the agency's evident willingness to issue reprimands for anyone talking out of turn, that is understandable. But the tensions between management and scientists over PFC research extended beyond Oliaei. That contentiousness is evident in a series of internal exchanges as Oliaei's tenure at the agency was drawing to a close. In one such e-mail from last fall, Don Kriens, an MPCA engineer who has worked closely with Oliaei, struck an unusually feisty and non-bureaucratic tone in response to a supervisor who questioned the research protocols Oliaei and Kriens employed in the fish sampling work on the Mississippi. Wrote Kriens: "I am rather offended that you find it necessary to educate me (and others) regarding work plans and conducting environmental research, and waste my time with your gibberish pontification and poor composition." Kriens later apologized for being a "bit direct" in his words. But the message seems clear: When it came to PFCs, the agency's managers and scientists often found themselves on opposite sides of the table.
As Oliaei tells it, that is true in more than the purely figurative sense. When she began work at the MPCA, she was involved in the rule-making for regulating air toxics. In those days, she says, scientists, managers, and environmental advocates would often sit together at one side of the conference tables, with industry representatives seated on the opposite side. Over the years, according to Oliaei, the seating arrangements for such meetings seemed to change; the scientists found themselves pushed to the margins of the room. "In the beginning, we were working together with the support of the mangers and the commissioner and the recommendations of the environmental groups in order to protect the public from industry emissions," Oliaei observes. "In the last four years, it's totally different."
Paul Hoff, the supervisor who issued Oliaei's reprimand, is circumspect when discussing his former subordinate. "I think she was very passionate about this subject matter. She certainly brought a lot of energy to the science," he says. "Beyond that, I guess I can't really comment further. We have a lot of other good scientists in the agency and we intend to fill her position quickly. And we are committed to continuing this investigation."
By contrast, Oliaei has consistently refused to soft-pedal her conflicts with the agency. It's not hard to imagine how that dynamic helped fuel the split. In testimony to the legislature, e-mails to supervisors, and statements to the media, Oliaei has pressed her case with unusual candor. In early February, the MPCA issued a release announcing that Oliaei had "settled" with the agency—an announcement that coincided with much bigger news of the day: President Bush's visit to Minnesota, where he gave a speech about technology innovation to an audience of 3M employees. In response, Oliaei fired off a letter to fellow MPCA employees that same day. She wrote that she resigned only because she figured the MPCA "would likely fire me if I continued to speak out about the issue." She went on to quote a former 3M chemist who characterized PFOS as "the most insidious pollutant since PCB."
At the MPCA, senior managers now insist that nothing will be lost with Oliaei's departure. Her former boss, Mike Sandusky, says the agency expects to spend about $100,000 on PFC research this year. He estimates that some 25 employees at the MPCA and other state agencies are working on the issue. Asked whether the MPCA would follow the recommendations outlined in Oliaei's report to the Senate, however, Sandusky balks. As of early March, he had not yet read Oliaei's report. He was particularly noncommittal about Oliaei's top recommendation, that the MPCA initiate an extensive investigation into the presence of PFCs in the sediments of Lake Pepin, where Oliaei suspects decades of PFC discharge have accumulated.
In her view, Lake Pepin is the single most critical area of research. If those suspicions are borne out, it might necessitate an extensive (and extremely expensive) dredging and decontamination of sediments. Oliaei likens the scenario to the highly contentious, EPA-mandated cleanup of the Hudson River in New York, which was fouled by PCBs dumped by General Electric. For his part, Sandusky does not care to even speculate about such a prospect. "We are taking a very reasoned, step-wise approach to how we're going to spend money," he says.
To Oliaei, that "step-wise approach" sounds like a promise of more foot-dragging. Why, she asks, would the agency pay to get rid of her if there was a sincere interest in pursuing her research? For that reason, she hopes to find another entity to underwrite her inquiries into PFCs in Minnesota. She's not sure what institution or agency might be willing to fund the undertaking. And, despite her cash settlement, she is worried about practical and financial matters. Will she still be able to afford her home in the St. Paul suburb of North Oaks? She doesn't think so—not with the out-of-pocket costs to maintain her health insurance and the hefty tuition bills racked up by her two college-age sons. "When they forced me to sign the settlement, I cried. I felt like a woman who had gone through three years of labor and finally given birth. But my child—my research—is in the hands of people not qualified to take care of it," she says. "I feel like a mother who lost her baby."