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Covington & Burling LLP Not Permitted to Represent Minnesota in 3M Case

On Thursday, Hennepin County District Judge Robert Blaeser issued a ruling that the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP is not permitted to work a case for the state of Minnesota against the 3M Co. The case involves anti-pollution from chemicals that were discovered in metro area lakes, groundwater and rivers.

The ruling was issued because if the firm represented the state it would be a conflict of interest because the firm formerly represented the 3M Co. A spokesman for the attorney general, Ben Wogsland, issued a statement that said: “Covington & Burling has represented the state of Minnesota in environmental matters for 17 years, and the state’s lawyers are reviewing the ruling.”

Attorneys for 3M argued that Covington should not be permitted to represent the state because the company was represented by Covington in issues revolving around the exact same chemicals. William Brewer III, principal with 3M firm Bickel & Brewer, said that Covington told 3M that the chemicals were “not hazardous.” “That conclusion is directly at odds with what the state alleges,” he said.

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“Covington has exhibited a conscious disregard for its duties of confidentiality, candor, full disclosure and loyalty to 3M by failing to raise its conflicts arising from the fact that it previously advised and represented 3M on (chemical pollution) matters,” the ruling said.

In the 1940s, 3M started manufacturing perfluorochemicals, or PFCs. The company dumped those chemicals into landfills in Washington County up until the decade of the 1970s. Small traces of those chemicals were discovered in the drinking water of Washington County residents beginning in 2004. Close to 60,000 residents were affected.

The chemical can cause issued with the thyroid, cancer and birth defects in mice when ingested in large amounts, according to studies. There have not been any studies that show harm to humans. The chemicals have been discovered in fish in area rivers and lakes as well.

Timothy Hester, the chair of Covington’s management committee stated: “The State of Minnesota has been a client of this firm on environmental matters since 1995.We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling. We believe 3M failed to identify an actual conflict of interest and its attempt to disqualify the firm should in any event be barred because it came 15 months after the case was filed. 3M is a former firm client and the State of Minnesota’s current environmental case against 3M is not substantially related to a food packaging matter that we handled for 3M many years ago.  Our client, the State of Minnesota, will be weighing its options, including an immediate appeal.”

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