Three “Forever Chemicals” manufacturers settle public water lawsuit

Three major chemical companies said Friday they would pay more than $1 billion to settle the first in a wave of allegations that they and other companies have contaminated drinking water across the country with so-called persistent chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other illnesses.

The companies – Chemours, DuPont and Corteva – said they had reached an agreement in principle to create a $1.19 billion fund to help remove toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, from public drinking water systems. PFAS have been linked to liver damage, weakened immune systems and several forms of cancer, among other damages, and are referred to as persistent chemicals because they linger in the human body and the environment.

Bloomberg News also reported Friday that 3M had reached a tentative agreement worth “at least $10 billion” with US cities and towns to resolve related PFAS claims. Sean Lynch, a spokesman for 3M, declined to comment on the report, which cited people familiar with the deal without naming them.

Hundreds of communities across the country have sued Chemours, 3M and other companies, claiming their products — used in firefighting foam, nonstick coatings and a variety of other products — contaminated their soil and water. They have sought billions of dollars in damages to deal with the health consequences and costs of cleaning up and monitoring contaminated sites.

A trial set to begin next week in federal court in South Carolina was seen as a test case for those lawsuits. In that case, the City of Stuart, Florida, sued 3M and several other companies, alleging that firefighting foam containing PFAS — used for decades in training exercises by the city’s fire department — had contaminated the local water supply.

The announced settlement is “an incredibly important next step in what has been decades of work to try to ensure that the costs of this massive PFAS ‘forever chemical’ contamination are borne not by the victims, but by the companies that caused the problem”, said Rob Bilott, an environmental lawyer who advises plaintiffs in the cases.

However, the environmental groups were cautious. Erik D. Olson, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the settlement, combined with money recently appropriated by Congress to help with contamination, would “take a bite out of the problem.” But, he added, “it’s not going to fully solve it.”

The tentative settlement with Chemours, DuPont and Corteva, all of whom declined to comment beyond the announcement, may not be the end of the costs for those companies either. The agreement, which requires a judge’s approval, will resolve lawsuits involving water systems that already had detectable levels of PFAS contamination, as well as those required to be monitored for contamination by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But it excludes some other water systems, and it will not resolve lawsuits resulting from claims for environmental damage or personal injury from people who are already sick from the chemicals. And state attorneys have filed new lawsuits, some as recently as this week, over the case.

3M’s responsibility may be even greater. In an online presentation in March, CreditSights, a financial research firm, estimated that PFAS litigation could ultimately cost 3M more than $140 billion, although it said a lower number was more likely. The company has said that by the end of 2025 it plans to end all PFAS production and will work to end the use of PFAS in its products.

Shares of 3M rose sharply on Friday after the Bloomberg report, as did shares of Chemours, DuPont and Corteva.

The synthetic chemicals are so ubiquitous that almost all Americans, including newborns, have PFAS in their blood. As many as 200 million Americans are exposed to PFAS in their tap water, according to a 2020 peer-reviewed study.

The PFAS cleanup effort gained more urgency last year when the EPA determined that levels of the chemicals “much lower than previously understood” could cause harm and that almost no level of exposure was safe. It recommended that drinking water contain no more than 0.004 parts per trillion perfluorooctanoic acid and 0.02 parts per trillion perfluorooctanesulfonic acid.

Previously, the agency had recommended that drinking water contain no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals. The EPA said the government would, for the first time, require near-zero levels of the substances.

Some industry groups criticized the proposed regulation, saying the Biden administration had created an impossible standard that would cost manufacturers and municipal water agencies billions of dollars. Industries would have to stop releasing the chemicals into waterways, and water utilities would have to test for the PFAS chemicals and remove them. Communities with limited resources will be hardest hit by the new rule, they warned.

The EPA estimated that compliance would cost water utilities $772 million annually. But many public services say they expect costs to be much higher.

PFAS-related litigation involves more than 4,000 cases, filed in federal courts across the country but largely consolidated before a federal judge in Charleston, SC, as so-called multidistrict litigation because the lawsuits involve a common set of facts and allegations. It is not uncommon for so-called mass tort cases to be grouped together in federal court, making it easier to conduct discovery and make decisions when so many plaintiffs and defendants are involved.

Elizabeth Burch, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies mass tort litigation, said: “Without the settlement documents being made public, it is difficult to say for sure what claims are covered by the alleged agreement.”

The list of cases against the companies continues to grow. Maryland filed two lawsuits this week against 3M, DuPont and others. Days earlier, a similar one filed by Rhode Island’s attorney general accused the companies of violating “state environmental and consumer protection laws.”

“I think this is the tip of the iceberg,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, a Washington nonprofit that works on clean water, food and climate issues. “This issue affects people across the country in so many communities.”

Hauter said she wanted to see stricter rules from the EPA

“We really need strong enforceable regulations for the entire class of PFAS chemicals,” she said. “I’m not sure this settlement is as big a deterrent as it needs to be. So much damage has been done in northern Michigan. People’s lives have been seriously affected. Creating a fund is a modest step.”

Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.

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