If you’re like 200 million other Americans, when you turned on your tap today you consumed water contaminated with PFAS—short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, but better known as “forever chemicals” because that’s about how long they linger in the environment.
A class of nearly 12,000 manufacturing chemicals, PFAS have been detected in water supplies nationwide, and have been linked to a range of health ills, including decreased fertility, high blood pressure in pregnant people, increased risk of certain cancers, developmental delays and low birthweight in children, hormonal disruption, and reduced effectiveness of the immune system. In the U.S., DuPont and 3M have historically been the leading manufacturers of PFAS—and both companies currently face about 4,000 lawsuits by states and municipalities seeking compensation for the cost of cleaning up their land and water supplies.
Yesterday, 3M got out from under some of that legal trouble, agreeing to pay $10.3 billion to at least 300 plaintiff communities. Those 300 were included in a lawsuit brought by the city of Stuart, Fla., in a case being heard as part of what is known as multidistrict litigation (MDL), consolidated for trial in the United States District Court in South Carolina. Earlier this month, lawyers for 3M, Stuart, and the other communities in the lawsuit entered settlement negotiations and asked Judge Richard Gergel for time to continue talks before the trial began. Gergel gave them 21 days and the deal announced yesterday came in just under the wire.
The settlement is the biggest ever against a PFAS manufacturer—but it is not likely to remain the biggest and certainly not the last. Given the ubiquity of the chemicals and the harm they can do, there will surely be more cases coming—in addition to the ones still pending. This $10.3 billion domino could easily topple many others.
“Not surprisingly, the defendants decided to settle before the trial even started,” says Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They had several major motions that were decided against them, and once that happened, I think the handwriting was on the wall.” The court decided against 3M’s request to exclude Stuart’s expert testimony, for example, as well as a motion for summary judgment.
The $10.3 billion will be paid out to the communities to install filters in their water supplies—but whether that amount will be enough to cover all 300 communities is uncertain. Stuart, with a population of just over 17,000 people, has already incurred costs of up to $120 million, the city manager told The New York Times. And that was just to replace existing wells; it does not include ongoing cleanup costs, such as groundwater contamination.
“Cities all over the country are facing costs,” says Rob Bilott, an attorney with the Taft Stettinus & Hollister law firm in Kentucky, whose earlier work pursuing PFAS claims was the basis of the feature film Dark Waters and the documentary The Devil We Know. It’s “not just to get PFAS out of their water,” he says. Communities “are now realizing that natural resources—the fish, the soil, the groundwater—everything is contaminated.”
Most of the contamination that the communities have suffered comes from the use of firefighting foam—which leaches into the ground after it’s been used—especially on military bases, at airports, and by local firefighters, both in actual fires and in drills. Older firefighting foam contained PFOA and PFOS—especially toxic forms of PFAS.
They have since been replaced by a relatively new type of PFAS, known as Gen X, which was developed in 2009 and was ostensibly safer than other members of the PFAS family—but it’s not. Indeed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Gen X is unsafe to consume in drinking water in any concentration higher than 10 parts per trillion. For the past 14 years it too has been seeping from foam into the surrounding environment, just like PFOA and PFOS.
It’s not just firefighting foam that causes trouble. Other contamination comes from the chemical manufacturing plants themselves—located in states that are the origin of some of the lawsuits—which produce PFAS for thousands of products, including clothing, non-stick cookware, food packaging, carpeting, shoes, beauty products, wall paint, contact lenses, and even feminine hygiene products.
In a statement accompanying yesterday’s settlement, 3M chairman Mike Roman pointed to the “state-of-the-art filtration technology” the company has installed in its plants and its commitment to “exit all PFAS manufacturing by 2025.” The resolution of the lawsuit is, he added, “an important step forward for 3M.”
But 3M is unlikely to skate away on the $10.3 billion settlement alone. Nor will DuPont and two of its spinoff companies, Chemours and Corteva, which, on June 2, reached a much more modest $1.185 billion settlement with another 300 drinking water providers. More than 3,000 claims remain unsettled in the South Carolina MDL. “There are also 5,000, perhaps 6,000 individuals who have brought personal injury cases [nationwide],” says Michael London, of the New York law firm Douglas & London, which is representing the plaintiffs in the Stuart case.
What’s more, DuPont and 3M will not be alone among the defendants likely to face big payouts. So too will the companies that knowingly manufactured products using PFAS produced by the two chemical companies. “There’s going to be probably twenty-plus defendants who have their fingerprints on [the] MDL,” says London. “Some will settle early, some will settle in the middle, some will settle late.”
Whenever they settle, it is already too late for the communities that have been harmed—and for the vast majority of Americans who have been drinking water, wearing clothes, cooking with utensils and using other products contaminated with PFAS. Legal settlements come and go, but forever chemicals are with us, well, forever.
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the name of an attorney. He is Rob Bilott, not Rob Billot.
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