Jun 2, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Companies to pay billions in "forever chemical" water pollution settlements

A 3M manufacturing facility  in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, in 2018.

A 3M manufacturing facility in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, in 2018. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Major chemical producers have agreed to pay billions of dollars to settle claims from U.S. water providers over toxic "forever chemicals" pollution.

Why it matters: The settlements are a significant step forward in the effort to reduce potentially dangerous chemicals in water systems across the country.

Driving the news: Chemours, DuPont and Corteva said Friday they reached a $1.19 billion settlement with water providers around the country.

  • The water providers had alleged that the companies were responsible for environmental pollution from firefighting foams they manufactured that contained PFAS.
  • Though the companies denied the allegations, the settlement would resolve hundreds of lawsuits against them that were consolidated in the federal district court for South Carolina, which must finalize the settlement for it to take effect.

What they're saying: John O'Connell, the board president of the National Rural Water Association, said in a statement that the settlement "is the beginning of helping our utility members in the fight against PFAS."

  • The group works with 50 state associations representing more than 31,000 water and wastewater utility systems, and helped filed a lawsuit on behalf of its members.

Yes, but: Not included in the settlements are systems operated by states and the U.S. government, some smaller drinking water systems, and systems in the lower Cape Fear River Basin of North Carolina, which has been plagued by high levels of PFAS.

How it works: The durable synthetic chemicals, which resist degradation by repelling oil and water and withstanding high temperatures, have been used in hundreds of nonstick, water- and oil-repellent, and fire-resistant products.

  • If the chemicals enter the environment through production or waste streams, they can resist breaking down for hundreds of years while contaminating water sources and bioaccumulating in fish, wildlife, livestock, and people.
  • Research has shown that reducing levels of PFAS in drinking water or switching to other water distributors will likely require municipalities to invest millions of dollars into new infrastructure and incur ongoing maintenance costs.
  • For example, officials in Cape Fear allocated $46 million and a recurring annual operating cost of $2.9 million to upgrade a treatment plant designed to filter PFAS from drinking water.

Meanwhile, 3M — a major PFAS producer — has also reached a tentative settlement worth at least $10 billion with water providers, Bloomberg reported Friday.

  • News of a potential settlement came just days before the company's first federal trial over PFAS pollution claims.
  • Facing extensive PFAS litigation — including a lawsuit from the Dutch government — 3M announced in December 2022 that it would stop manufacturing and using the chemicals by the end of 2025.
  • "The parties are making material and significant progress toward a resolution of this matter, and have jointly requested a continuance," a 3M spokesperson said in a statement to Axios on Monday.
  • "As we have previously disclosed, we are in active, ongoing, and confidential mediation sessions."

Go deeper: Communities of color disproportionately exposed to PFAS in drinking water, study says

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