The $1.19 billion settlement, declared by Chemours, DuPont, and Corteva, doesn’t put an end to all the allegations they face.
Last year, the E.P.A. concluded that almost no level of exposure to PFAS chemicals was safe. Joshua A. Bickel/Associated Press On Friday, three leading chemical corporations declared they would shell out over $1 billion to resolve the initial batch of accusations that their companies, along with others, polluted the nation’s drinking water with ‘forever chemicals’, which have been connected to cancer and various diseases.
Chemours, DuPont, and Corteva, the firms involved, announced they had reached a provisional agreement to establish a $1.19 billion fund for the removal of toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, from public water supply systems. PFAS, notorious for causing liver damage, immune system weakness, multiple cancer types, and other harms, are known as ‘forever chemicals’ due to their persistent nature in the human body and the environment.
On the same day, Bloomberg News reported that 3M had arrived at a tentative agreement worth “at least $10 billion” with U.S. cities and towns to settle related PFAS claims. Sean Lynch, a 3M spokesperson, refrained from commenting on the report, which quoted anonymous sources familiar with the agreement.
Across the nation, hundreds of communities have filed lawsuits against Chemours, 3M, and other companies, alleging that their products – utilized in firefighting foams, nonstick coatings, and a plethora of other items – polluted their soil and water. They are demanding billions in damages to cope with the health effects and the cost of cleaning and monitoring polluted sites.
A trial scheduled to commence next week in a South Carolina federal court was anticipated to be a litmus test for these lawsuits. In that case, Stuart City, Florida, sued 3M and several other companies, alleging that the city’s fire department’s use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam for decades in training exercises polluted the local water supply.
The disclosed settlement represents “an incredibly crucial subsequent step in what has been decades of work to ensure that the costs of this massive PFAS ‘forever chemical’ contamination are shouldered by the guilty companies rather than the victims,” stated Rob Bilott, an environmental lawyer advising plaintiffs in the cases.
However, environmental groups remain wary. Erik D. Olson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, stated that the settlement, in conjunction with funds recently appropriated by Congress to assist with contamination, would “chip away at the problem.” But, he added, “it won’t completely solve it.”
The preliminary agreement with Chemours, DuPont, and Corteva, who all declined to comment further than the announcement, might not conclude the expenses for these companies. The agreement, pending a judge’s approval, would resolve lawsuits involving water systems already polluted by detectable PFAS levels and those required to monitor for contamination by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the agreement does not include some other water systems and will not resolve lawsuits resulting from claims of environmental damage or personal injury from individuals already impacted by the chemicals. Additionally, state attorneys general have recently lodged new lawsuits over the issue.
3M’s liability could be even more substantial. In a March online presentation, CreditSights, a financial research firm, estimated PFAS litigation could ultimately cost 3M more than $140 billion, though a lower figure was considered more probable. The company has announced plans to exit all PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025 and work to eliminate PFAS use in its products.
3M’s stock, along with those of Chemours, DuPont, and Corteva, surged on Friday following the Bloomberg report.
Almost all Americans, including newborns, have PFAS in their blood, illustrating the ubiquity of these synthetic chemicals. A 2020 peer-reviewed study estimated that as many as 200 million Americans are exposed to PFAS in their tap water.
The urgency for PFAS cleanup escalated last year when the E.P.A. concluded that even “much lower than previously understood” chemical levels could be harmful and that nearly no level of exposure was safe. The agency recommended a maximum of four parts per trillion of perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid in drinking water.
In the past, the agency recommended a maximum of 70 parts per trillion of these chemicals in drinking water. The E.P.A. announced that the government would, for the first time, require almost zero levels of these substances.
Certain industry groups lambasted the proposed regulation, arguing that the Biden administration had set an unachievable standard that would cost manufacturers and municipal water agencies billions. Industries would need to halt the discharge of these chemicals into water bodies, and water utilities would be required to test and remove PFAS chemicals. The new rule would hit communities with limited resources the hardest, they warned.
The E.P.A. projected that adherence would cost water utilities $772 million annually. However, many public utilities anticipate higher costs.
PFAS-related lawsuits comprise more than 4,000 cases, filed in federal courts nationwide but primarily consolidated before a federal judge in Charleston, S.C., into so-called multidistrict litigation due to the common set of facts and allegations. It’s not uncommon for these mass tort cases to be grouped this way in federal court, which simplifies discovery and deposition processes when there are numerous plaintiffs and defendants.
Elizabeth Burch, a mass tort litigation scholar and professor at the University of Georgia, said, “Without public access to the settlement documents, it’s difficult to determine which claims the purported agreement covers.”
The list of cases against these companies is still expanding. Maryland lodged two lawsuits this week against 3M, DuPont, and others. Days before, a similar lawsuit filed by Rhode Island’s attorney general accused the companies of violating “state environmental and consumer protection laws.”
“I believe this is just the beginning,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, a non-profit in Washington that focuses on issues related to clean water, food, and climate. “This issue impacts people all across the country in countless communities.”
Ms. Hauter expressed her desire for stricter regulations from the EPA.
“We need robust, enforceable regulations on the entire class of PFAS chemicals,” she stated. “I’m not convinced that this settlement acts as a significant deterrent. So much harm has been inflicted in northern Michigan. People’s lives have been significantly affected. Setting up a fund is a minor step.”
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