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Florida city becomes key player in "forever chemicals" settlement

A small city in Florida is leading the way in a major settlement over "forever chemicals" in drinking water

Dave Peters took pride in supplying the residents of Stuart, Florida with award-winning drinking water. The former public works director says he clearly remembers one evening back in 2016 when the city’s living “nightmare” began.  

We got a phone call on a Monday night at 5:05 p.m. Then the question was, are you ready for this?” Peters says. 

A Congressional assistant alerted the city of Stuart that the water supply contained unacceptably high levels of PFAS (per-and-poly-fluoroalkyl substances)– a class of compounds also known as “forever chemicals.”

The CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, (ATSDR) says high exposure to certain kinds of PFAS may lead to decreased vaccine response in children, increased cholesterol levels, decreases in infant birth weights, high blood pressure in pregnant women, and even an increased risk of developing of kidney or testicular cancer. The agency also says lab animal experiments have been conducted to learn more about the potential effects of PFAS exposure, and high doses of PFAS in lab animals “caused low birth weight, birth defects, delayed development.” 

“We’re a small city with families,” Peters says. “We certainly didn’t want to be the cause of somebody’s health issues.” 

“Forever chemicals” are found in far more places than Stuart, Florida.PFAS have been widely used since the 1940s in the production of various household products like nonstick cookware, clothes, carpets, and fire extinguishing foam. These man-made compounds earned their nickname because they do not easily break down in the environment, and they can seep into the soil, water, and air over time.The ATSDRreports that “most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood.”

This year, the EPA proposed regulations to limit certain kinds of “forever chemicals” in drinking water over growing concerns that PFAS can “adversely impact human health and other living things.” The EPA aims to limit PFAS levels to just four parts pertrillion. For context, the EPA’s limit for arsenic in drinking is10 thousand parts per trillion and the limit for cyanide is 200 thousand parts per trillion. The EPA’s regulations would be enforceable which would mean local water treatment systems would have to shoulder the costs of cleanup. The EPA estimates that over three thousand water systems would need to remove PFAS, and the annual costs could be as high as $1.2 billion dollars a year (excluding the cost of disposing of PFAS). The EPA would make some funding available to these systems, but the Association of Metropolitan Water agencies has said that the polluters should bear the costs.  

When Peters received the call in 2016, the PFAS limit for two types of the compounds (PFOA and PFOS) was 70 parts per trillion. The city worked to reduce PFAS levels to well below the 70 parts per trillion maximum and was able to meet health regulations.  

We didn’t have any partners. We didn’t even know who else had the problem back in ’16. So, we kind of did trial and error, did performance testing to make sure that the solution we thought we had in place would actually work long term,” Peters says.  

The city used ion exchange technology to bring the levels of PFOA and PFOS below the health advisory levels. Peters says the projected cost for the city to maintain the system is between $2.5 and $3 million dollars a year, and the overall price tag was hard to pin down, costing “millions and millions and millions.” 

Peters says Stuart’s ordeal was “just the tip of the iceberg” for communities nationwide that are working to remove PFAS from drinking water.  

The source of the PFAS was “close to home,” says Peters. Stuart’s fire department, located in the city’s public safety complex, is less than a fifteen-minute walk away from the water treatment plant. He explains that the city believes the “forever chemicals” entered the water supply from firefighters training with aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) which contains PFAS. 

Stuart is one of hundreds of communities that have filed lawsuits over the potentially hazardous effects of the foam. A U.S. District Court in South Carolina is currently presiding over the similar cases which were combined into amultidistrict litigation (MDL). Stuart, Florida was chosen as the representative case for plaintiffs arguing that AFFF containing two kinds of PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) contaminated groundwater causing “personal injury, a need for medical monitoring” and “property damage or other economic losses.” 

The St. Paul-based conglomerate 3M and the chemical company DuPont are among the biggest manufacturers of AFFF. Both companies are facing several lawsuits over PFAS. Back in June, DuPont, along with its spin-off companies Chemours and Corteva, announced they had reached an agreement worth over $1 billion dollars to fund the removal of PFAS from drinking water. Stuart’s case in the multidistrict litigation focused on 3M’s alleged role in PFAS contamination. 

Levin Papantonio Rafferty’s Ned McWilliams serves on the Science and Discovery Committees in the MDL. He says there is a traceable link between 3M and the PFOS and PFOA contamination. “They’re the only ones in the United States who made PFOS. And so if you find PFOS anywhere in the United States, more likely than not it came from 3M. And we have testimony from 3M to that effect. PFOA is a little bit different. There are other companies that make PFOA, but again, 3M was the dominant manufacturer. But moreover, because of the manufacturing technique used by 3M to make their PFOA, it leaves a chemical fingerprint that we’re able to analyze in water samples.” 

In June, 3M announced a settlement had been reached to pay at least $10.3 billion in remediation costs out to communities removing PFAS from water supplies. If the deal is approved, 3M would provide funding for PFAS treatment technologies over the course of 13 years “without the need for any further litigation.”  McWilliams says he has been working on this kind of case for a decade, and the settlement is bittersweet.  

“On one hand, it the settlement is always what’s best for the clients. It gets resolution. It makes sure that they’repaid timely. On the other hand, we very much wanted to tell the story,” McWilliams says. “And, you know, we put together, I think, an amazing story of what these companies knew and when they knew it and what they did and didn’t do in response to that information.” 

Peters says Stuart’s ordeal was very emotional, especially knowing that families’ health could be at risk. But, he is pleased the settlement will be a major step in ensuring other communities will be able to afford water treatment.  

We’re proud to be a part of this solution, and we’re proud to represent those folks in South Carolina, even though it didn’t go to court, we were prepared,” Peters says. 

As is standard, a settlement is not an admission of liability. 

Companies don’t pay up to $12 and a half billion dollars unless they realize that, you know, we caught them doing something they shouldn’t have,” McWilliams says. “And in this case, the evidence was pretty overwhelming that by no later than 1983, 3M knew these chemicals were toxic.” 

The Annals of Global Health recently published a review of industry documents which alleges that companies knew PFAS were toxic when inhaled or ingested as early as 1970 and suppressed “unfavorable research.”  3M spokesman Sean Lynch says, “The paper is largely comprised of previously published documents – as evidenced by the paper’s references section, which includes citations dating back as far as 1962.” And “3M has previously addressed many of the mischaracterizations of these documents in previous reporting.” 

The settlement is still waiting for approval in federal court, and over 20 attorneys general are urging the presiding Judge Richard Gergel to reject the agreement. The leader of the coalition, California Attorney General Rob Bonta, says the settlement does not account for the quote “pernicious damage that 3M has done…” The states also claim the settlement does not give the water suppliers enough time to know whether the payment would adequately cover costs.  Lynch tells FOX, “It is not unusual for there to be objections regarding significant settlement agreements. We will continue to work cooperatively to address questions about the terms of the resolution.” 

Stuart’s bellwether case is not over yet. McWilliams says other parts of the litigation, including personal injury cases and property value damage cases, are still going forward, and more claims could be on the horizon. But for now, he says, the most important part is over. 

“There’s few things in life more precious than drinking water. And this settlement will ensure that American drinking water is safe to consume,” McWilliams says.  

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