TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan — Chemical manufacturer 3M Co. will pay at least $10.3 billion to settle lawsuits alleging contamination of many U.S. public drinking water systems with potentially harmful compounds used in firefighting foam and a host of consumer products, the company said Thursday.
The deal would compensate water suppliers for contamination with per- and polyfluorinated substances, collectively known as PFAS – a broad class of chemicals used in non-stick, water- and grease-resistant products such as clothing and cookware.
Described as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally in the environment, PFAS have been linked to a variety of health problems, including liver and immune system damage and some cancers.
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The compounds have been found at varying levels in drinking water across the country. The Environmental Protection Agency in March proposed strict limits on two common types, PFOA and PFOS, and said it wanted to regulate four others. Water suppliers would be responsible for checking their systems for the chemicals.
The agreement would settle a case set for trial earlier this month related to a claim from Stuart, Florida, one of about 300 communities that have filed similar lawsuits against companies that produced firefighting foam or the PFAS it contained.
3M Chairman Mike Roman said the deal was “an important step forward” building on the company’s 2020 decision to phase out PFOA and PFOS and its investments in “state-of-the-art water filtration technology in our chemical production activities”. The company, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, will cease all PFAS production by the end of 2025, he said.
The settlement will be paid over 13 years and could be as high as $12.5 billion depending on how many public water systems detect PFAS during testing EPA has required over the next three years, said Dallas-based attorney Scott Summy, one of the leading attorneys for those suing 3M and other manufacturers.
The payment will help cover the costs of filtering PFAS from systems where it has been detected and testing others, he said.
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“The result is that millions of Americans will live healthier lives without PFAS in their drinking water,” Summy said.
Earlier this month, three other companies – DuPont de Nemours Inc. and spinoffs Chemours Co. and Corteva Inc. — a $1.18 billion deal to resolve PFAS complaints from approximately 300 drinking water suppliers. A number of states, airports, firefighter training facilities and private well owners have also sued.
The cases are pending in U.S. District Court in Charleston, South Carolina, where Judge Richard Gergel is overseeing thousands of complaints alleging PFAS harm. A lawsuit against a complaint by the City of Stuart, Florida, was scheduled to begin this month, but was postponed to allow time for additional settlement negotiations.
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Most of the lawsuits stem from training exercises for firefighters at airports, military bases and other locations in the U.S. that repeatedly used foam laced with high concentrations of PFAS, Summy said.
The settlement with 3M is subject to court approval, he said.
3M’s website states that in the 1960s, the company helped the US Navy develop foam containing PFAS chemicals.
“This was an important and life-saving tool that helped fight dangerous fires, such as those caused by jet fuel,” the company said.
3M said its participation in the settlement “is not an admission of liability” and said that if it were rejected in court, “3M is prepared to continue to defend itself.”
The cost of cleaning up PFAS from U.S. water systems could ultimately far exceed the amounts agreed in the settlements, Summy acknowledged.
“I’m not sure anyone knows what that final number will be,” he said. “But I do think this is going to make a huge dent in those costs…and you won’t have to litigate for the next 10 years or more.”