Michael Hickey, an insurance underwriter credited with discovering a toxic chemical in the Hoosick Falls water system two years ago, filed a federal class-action lawsuit this week against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International, which both operated manufacturing plants that are a focus of the contamination.
Hickey, 37, filed the lawsuit on behalf of himself and his 5-year-old son. In an interview Thursday, Hickey said he worries about any future health effects that could be attributed to their years of consuming water that was tainted with the man-made chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Albany is one of several lawsuits file this year seeking class-action status on behalf of current and former Hoosick Falls residents, including some who allege they may have suffered serious health effects that could be linked to PFOA exposure.
Hickey emerged as a folk hero in this tight-knit community last December when his role in detecting and alerting village leaders about the dangerous chemical was revealed in a Times Union story. For more than a year, Hickey said he met resistance from municipal leaders when he urged them to take more urgent action to warn the public that laboratory sampling showed elevated levels of PFOA in the public drinking-water supply.
“The first step was to get the water fixed as a whole, and now it’s to look at other things,” Hickey said. “The most important thing for me is the medical monitoring for my son.”
Hickey began researching contaminants in the village water two years ago because he was concerned about what he believed was a high rate of cancer in the community. His father, John, died of kidney cancer in 2013 after working for decades at the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant on McCaffrey Street, which has been the focus of water contamination in the village. The factory is about 300 yards from the underground wells that supply water to the village.
The class-action lawsuits all seek to compel the companies, if they are found responsible for the pollution, to pay the cost of long-term medical monitoring for people exposed to the PFOA. The lawsuits also seek unspecified damages for health problems and declining property values in and around the village. Three law firms from Rochester, New York City and Philadelphia filed the complaint on behalf of Hickey, who would become the lead plaintiff in the litigation if it gains class-action status.
Hickey’s complaint says the companies should have known that “the release of PFOA-containing waste into the environment was potentially hazardous to human health.”
The lawsuits against Saint-Gobain and Honeywell are mounting as the pollution problems in Hoosick Falls have also triggered additional environmental investigations that found PFOA contamination in water systems in nearby Petersburgh and also southern Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
In 2006, the EPA reached an agreement with DuPont and other manufacturers to stop producing or using PFOA, although DuPont continued producing PFOA because the agreement did not call for the end of production of the chemical until 2015. The EPA settlement with DuPont came less than a year after DuPont agreed to pay $10.25 million in civil penalties to settle the complaint brought by the EPA regarding the company’s PFOA pollution in the Midwest. At the time, it was the largest civil administrative penalty ever obtained by the EPA under federal environmental statutes.
In January 2009, the EPA set its advisory for short-term exposure to PFOA at no more than 400 parts per trillion Last month, the agency set a long-term exposure limit of 100 ppt that applies to regular residential water use. Some of the levels of PFOA detected in Hoosick Falls’ water system, as well as private wells in the village and town of Hoosick, have exceeded 400 ppt.
PFOA is used to make non-stick and other household and commercial products that are heat-resistant and repel grease and water. Saint-Gobain and many other companies began phasing out their use of the chemical more than 10 years ago as scientific studies raised concerns about its effects on humans and the environment.