11 agencies seek hundreds of millions of dollars from DuPont, 3M, others.
Eleven Orange County water agencies have joined in a lawsuit seeking hundreds of millions of dollars from DuPont, 3M and others whose carcinogenic chemicals have leached into groundwater aquifers and forced the closure of more than three dozen wells in the central and northern parts of the county.
The money would compensate the water districts — and the hundreds of thousands of residents they serve — for costs associated with the contamination, including the treatment plants being designed to remove the PFAS contaminants targeted in the lawsuit. Those chemicals were long used in Scotchguard, Teflon, and other waterproofing and stain-proofing products.
The chemicals are believed to end up in county wells as product residue that finds its way into Inland Empire wastewater. That water is then released as treated sewage into the Santa Ana River, which eventually settles into the county’s groundwater basin, according to water officials. Additionally, the lawsuit lists a 3M plant in Corona and Corona-based roofing company, Decra Roofing Systems, that used 3M products, as possible sources.
“Defendants 3M Company and E.I. du Pont de Nemours … knew or reasonably should have known that these harmful compounds would reach groundwater, pollute drinking water supplies, render drinking water unusable and unsafe, and threaten public health and welfare,” according to the suit, filed Tuesday, Dec. 1, in Orange County Superior Court.
The PFAS toxins — the acronym stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — encompass a family of chemicals that includes two compounds regulators have focused on, PFOA and PFOS. Those two have been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, liver and kidney damage, and ulcerative colitis. Regulators have steadily been lowering the threshold at which the chemicals may have health consequences to ever more miniscule amounts, which has led to growing attention on their presence in Orange County and elsewhere in the state.
Water districts statewide began shutting down wells last year and shifting to more costly imported water. Orange County was particularly hard hit: Of the 195 wells in the 11 Orange County water agencies’ turf, more than three dozen have been closed and the number eventually determined to be contaminated could reach more than 70.
The first PFAS treatment plants in the county are expected to be operational next spring.
DuPont pushes back
DuPont spokesman Dan Turner said his company is not responsible for the chemicals in question, despite being a 2017 spinoff of what the lawsuit dubs “Old Dupont.”
“DuPont de Nemours has never made or sold PFOA, PFOS or other perfluorinated compounds in California, or elsewhere,” Turner said via email. “These complaints are the latest example of DuPont being improperly named in litigation, and we look forward to vigorously defending our position.”
The lawsuit appears to anticipate that argument.
“Old DuPont has known for decades that it faces unprecedented liabilities for widespread PFAS contamination through the country,” the suit says. “Old DuPont has sought to limit its PFAS liability by engaging in a series of complex restructuring transactions.”
The corporate entities emerging from that restructuring included a chemical business called the Chemours Co., as well as DuPont de Nemours and Corteva, Inc., according to the suit. Chemours and Corteva are also named as defendants.
“These transactions were all designed to shield billions of dollars in assets from the PFAS liabilities that Old DuPont tried to isolate in Chemours,” says the suit.
Chemours did not respond to requests for comment. 3M responded in a brief email, “3M acted responsibly in connection with PFAS and will vigorously defend itself against the allegations in this lawsuit.”
The Orange County Water District, which manages the county’s primary groundwater basin as well Santa Ana River flows in the county, is the primary plaintiff in the suit. Ten of that district’s member agencies with contaminated wells have joined in the suit: the water divisions in the cities of Anaheim, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Orange, Tustin and Santa Ana, as well as the East Orange County, Irvine Ranch, Serrano and Yorba Linda water districts.
Just one agency with contaminated wells in the county, the privately owned Golden State Water Co., has not joined the suit.
Orange County Water District’s eight other member agencies have not identified PFOA or PFOS in their wells.
A decade ago, the first wave of major lawsuits over PFAS chemicals came from places near major DuPont and 3M plants, where spilled and dumped toxins contaminated groundwater.
In 2017, DuPont and Chemours reached a $671 million settlement in a class-action brought by 3,550 people in West Virginia, who said they suffered health consequences from the toxic water. The case was portrayed in the last year’s Hollywood drama “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Ann Hathaway.
In 2018, 3M reached a $850 million settlement with the state of Minnesota for contaminating groundwater near its plant there.
As researchers find toxic repercussions from ever smaller quantities of the chemicals, lawsuits have started to be filed in communities where there are no major manufacturing plants. The attorney general of Vermont, for instance, has filed suit against manufacturers for groundwater that’s been tainted by treated wastewater and runoff from landfills. And in October, the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency filed a similar suit.
Like Vermont and Santa Clarita, much of Orange County’s groundwater contamination is believed to come from products — with the chemical residue getting into wastewater systems — rather than directly from major plant dumps and spills.
New York, meanwhile, has filed suit for contamination caused by runoff from airports, where the toxins have been used in firefighting foam.
O.C. hit hard
Contamination from PFAS has been found throughout the state and country, including all Southern California counties. But Orange County has been harder hit than its neighbors, probably because of treated wastewater from the Inland Empire being released into the Santa Ana River and then absorbed into the county’s primary groundwater basin.
A study released in April measured for 12 PFAS compounds at 29 locations near the Santa Ana River and confirmed the presence of many of those compounds upstream of Orange County. Some water officials expect that treatment systems to remove the PFAS chemicals at the upstream wastewater plants will eventually be developed.
But the more immediate response has been to close affected wells while developing a series of local plants to treat the water coming out of those wells.
The Orange County Water District launched a $1.4 million pilot project last December to determine the best type of filter to use in those plants. Construction, operation and maintenance of those plants, along with the increased cost of imported water in the interim and other related expenses are expected to exceed $1 billion, according to Daniel S. Robinson, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Since August 2019, when the acceptable health standard was last upgraded, the state has recommended closing wells if they had 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and 40 parts per trillion for PFOS. One part per trillion is about the same as four grains of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
While the focus now is on the PFOA and PFOS compounds, water officials expect the state Division of Drinking Water will soon add seven additional PFAS compounds to the list.
Construction costs for the PFAS treatment plants is expected to be shared by all 19 of the Orange County Water District’s member agencies while operations and maintenance costs will be paid by the 11 agencies that will use them.
The Orange County Water District estimated earlier this year that treatment could cost the average home in a local district with PFAS $4 to $5 more monthly — but could reach as high as $20 per month in the interim for districts in which all the wells have been closed, necessitating a complete shift to the more costly imported water. Customers in districts where wells don’t have PFAS could pay $1 to $2 more monthly.
However, it remains to be seen exactly how much of the costs are passed on customers. So far, some affected districts have managed to minimize or avoid relaying cost increases by deferring nonessential projects and tapping reserves.
*Original article online at https://www.ocregister.com/2020/12/02/oc-water-districts-file-massive-lawsuit-over-pfas-contaminants/