South Florida cities are joining the battle over the 3M Company’s role in creating “forever chemicals” that have found their way into water systems, soil and groundwater.
Lawsuits filed in May by Coral Springs and Pompano Beach against 3M and a long list of affiliates were recently transferred to federal court. They seek to force the companies to clean up contaminated properties where firefighters trained with fire-suppression materials made with chemicals that the federal government says can cause a host of long-term health issues.
Meanwhile, Broward County Commissioner Mark Bogen, whose call to test local waters for the chemicals was rebuffed, has decided to go it alone: He initiated the collection of water samples at six Broward city halls and sent them to a laboratory for testing. Results are due back within days, Bogen said.
3M Company was facing about 4,000 lawsuits by states and cities over contamination by aqueous film-forming foam — a firefighting agent that douses burning fuels — when it agreed last month to pay cities and other operators of public water systems up to $12.5 billion for testing and cleanup over 13 years. In South Florida, 3M is also being sued by Delray Beach and Plantation, and by Stuart in Martin County.
3M said its settlement offer is not an admission of responsibility and it reserves the right to defend itself against the lawsuits if the federal court in Charleston, South Carolina, hearing the multidistrict litigation does not approve it.
3M also said it will address litigation that does not allege contamination of drinking water supplies, like the suit filed by Coral Springs in May and another by the city of Plantation in 2021, “by defending itself in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate.”
The firefighting foam produces toxic chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) that leached into the ground and into public water supplies when cities for decades used it in firefighter training exercises, the lawsuits state.
Lawsuits charge 3M with knowing since the 1980s that PFAS can cause cancer, but chose to discredit science pointing to the danger.
Attorneys who filed Coral Springs’ lawsuit says the city is not eligible to participate in the settlement because its claims involve contamination of its property, rather than its water supply.
Coral Springs’ suit blames the companies for contamination stemming from the city’s use of aqueous film-forming foam at its Coral Springs Regional Institute of Public Safety. The contamination was discovered in testing by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, said Brandon Taylor, attorney with the Louisiana-based law firm Cossich, Sumich, Parsiola & Taylor LLC, which is representing the two cities.
A Coral Springs spokeswoman declined further comment on the city’s lawsuit.
Pompano Beach’s suit states that contamination leached from sites where PFAS was used or stored into the city’s public water supply. Like Coral Springs’ suit, it seeks to recover costs to remove the contamination from its property.
“It should be clearly noted that the city’s drinking water meets all current state and federal standards, including those for PFAS,” city spokeswoman Sandra King wrote in an emailed statement. “However, the standards for those contaminants, set by the Environmental Protection Agency, are due to change significantly in the future.”
Those changes, King wrote, “will require local governments with water utility systems to spend millions of dollars in special equipment and infrastructure required to eliminate these specific types of man-made chemicals from the city’s water system.”
Damages sought would compensate Pompano Beach for costs of the investigation, monitoring, treatment, testing, remediation, removal and filtration of PFAS, King wrote.
PFAS are everywhere
3M has said it would stop manufacturing PFAS by 2025, as concerns grow about its presence in everyday products ranging from nonstick coatings in cookware, food containers such as fast-food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags, shampoos, dental floss, cosmetics, cleaning products, plus paints, varnishes and sealants.
A recently released study in Annals of Global Health said there are more than 12,000 PFAS chemicals, used for their slippery or lubricating properties.
Studies have linked PFAS to a wide variety of human illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified cancer, asthma, decreased fertility and liver damage as potential health problems linked to exposure of PFAS in public water supplies.
Their toxicity was revealed in studies published in the late 1990s. Some PFAS chemicals are no longer manufactured, but because they take hundreds of years to break down — inspiring the term “forever chemicals” — they are still widely found in lakes, groundwater, rivers and in the air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA has announced a proposal to regulate the presence of PFAS in water to four parts per trillion. Currently, EPA endorses an unofficial ceiling of 70 parts per trillion.
Stuart’s 2018 lawsuit was scheduled to come to trial on June 5 when 3M began to seriously negotiate a settlement involving hundreds of water-supply contamination claims. Both sides requested a delay as negotiations continued.
The settlement by 3M deals only with specific charges, as does a settlement announced on June 2 in which The Chemours Company, DuPont de Nemours and Company, and Corteva Inc. agreed to place $1.19 billion into a fund that will remove forever chemicals from public drinking water systems.
3M’s settlement agreement applies to public water suppliers that have detected PFAS in their water supplies as well as “eligible public water suppliers that may detect PFAS at any level in the future.”
3M’s announcement stressed that the agreement “is not an admission of liability,” adding, “If the agreement is not approved by the court or certain agreed terms are not fulfilled, 3M is prepared to continue to defend itself in the litigation.
Lawsuits by individuals alleging that PFAS caused illnesses like cancers or organ failures, or by cities alleging property damage from PFAS are not part of the settlement, Taylor said.
3M said those claims will be dealt with separately.
Broward commissioner conducts his own tests
In May, Broward County Commissioner Mark Bogen asked county leaders to start a water testing program.
A 2021 Florida International University study, Bogen said, cited a test conducted by Dania Beach showing PFAS of 124 parts per trillion.
But Bogen’s call was met with pushback from some of his fellow commissioners.
“And then what?” asked Commissioner Nan Rich at the May commission meeting about what the county would do with the testing results. “I’m not feeling very good about analyzing water, putting the results out there and frighten people because we don’t have an answer what to do with it yet.”
Bogen argued, “Our job is to provide the cleanest water. We’ve got an obligation to the public. Waiting until 2024 (for scheduled federal testing) is derelict.”
Broward has 31 cities and 25 water providers, so some cities get their water elsewhere.
Of those 25, Broward County controls two of them. Last month, because of Bogen’s request, the county tested its water at its own plants.
Tests of a plant that services Lauderdale Lakes and small portions of Lauderhill, Fort Lauderdale, Oakland Park and North Lauderdale showed 18 parts per trillion, said Alan Garcia, director of Water and Wastewater Services.
Another water facility that serves portions of Lighthouse Point, Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach and Coconut Creek showed 26 parts per trillion, Garcia said.
Currently, 70 parts per trillion or less is the number that has been acceptable. But the EPA is considering lowering that to 4 parts per trillion later in December, which would mean the county then has to treat the water differently. “The cost will have different implications,” County Administrator Monica Cepero told county leaders in May.
Bogen didn’t want to wait to get answers. He recruited two of his employees to collect samples from men’s public bathrooms at six city halls — Pompano Beach, Coral Springs, Coconut Creek, Margate, Deerfield Beach and Fort Lauderdale. They let the sink water run for 60 seconds, then they filled up jars of water and overnighted it off to the lab. The results are expected within days.
“The public needs to know if there is something in their water that can cause them harm,” he said Tuesday.