Delaware County sues PFAS makers for contamination at fire-fighting sites

DuPont, 3M say they will ‘vigorously’ defend claims they knew chemicals were toxic since 1960s.

A water tower stands above a residential neighborhood

In this Aug. 1, 2018 photo, a water tower stands above a residential neighborhood in Horsham, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

This story originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Delaware County is suing makers of PFAS “forever chemicals,” saying they were responsible for contaminating ground water and soil with the chemicals that were used in a type of firefighting foam at three sites around the county.

The defendants include DuPont, Chemours and 3M. The suit says the defendants continued to make the chemicals despite knowing since the 1960s that they were toxic. The county accuses the companies of violating state laws designed to penalize firms that disregard corporate obligations to consumers. The chemicals are  linked with some cancers, thyroid conditions, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and preeclampsia in pregnant women.

The suit, filed Monday in Delaware County’s common pleas court, names at least 18 other corporate defendants including Chemguard, Tyco and Kidde.

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The companies had a duty to do business in a way that would not unreasonably endanger human health and the environment, but they were “negligent and failed to warn consumers of the hazards associated with the use of PFASs that have caused the contamination of groundwater and soil around the property,” the county said in a statement.

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said the contamination could have been prevented if the companies “had been honest with consumers.”

“We hope and expect that, as a result of this lawsuit, the companies will provide us with the resources that we need to clean up the county and remove these harmful chemicals as quickly as possible,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the county said officials there are unaware of any other Pennsylvania county to have sued PFAS makers over environmental contamination. She said the claims could expand if the county finds PFAS at other county-owned sites.

None of the samples was taken in drinking water wells, the DA said.

DuPont denied any connection with PFAS contamination in Delaware County.

“DuPont de Nemours, Inc. has never made or sold AFFF firefighting foams, PFOA or PFOS. This complaint is the latest example of DuPont being improperly named in litigation, and we look forward to vigorously defending our position,” it said in a statement.

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3M also defended itself against the suit.

“3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS, including AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam), and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship,” the company said in a statement.

Chemours, which was spun off from DuPont in 2015, did not respond to a request for comment.

The suit is the latest move in a series of legal, legislative and regulatory actions nationwide to curb the toxic chemicals.

PFAS chemicals are especially hard to eradicate because they do not break down in the environment and accumulate in the human body, earning them the label of “forever chemicals.”

They have been used since the 1940s in consumer products such as Teflon, as well as in flame-retardant fabrics including carpets and curtains. Although the major U.S. manufacturers agreed to phase out the most common types of PFAS, starting in the mid-2000s, the chemicals are still used in some food packaging, and they enter the U.S. market in products imported from countries that don’t regulate their production.

President Joe Biden’s EPA has begun a new round of testing for the chemicals, and restarted a regulatory process that could eventually lead to enforceable health standards being set across the country. In the current absence of national regulation, some states, including New Jersey, have set strict levels for the chemicals’ presence in drinking water, while Delaware lawmakers are considering a bill that would set that state’s own standards.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf’s “Action Team” on PFAS reported in March that it found PFAS chemicals in about a third of 114 water systems around the state but, that none exceeded a health advisory limit set by the EPA for two of the most commonly found PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS.

And in an attempt to understand more about links between PFAS chemicals and human illness, federal scientists are preparing to take blood from groups of people later this summer at seven sites around the country where high levels of PFAS have been found in drinking water. The test sites include the Horsham-Warrington area in Bucks and Montgomery counties, where the chemicals leaked into ground water after being used for years in firefighting foam on two now-shuttered military bases.

Many scientists say the EPA level of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water is too high to adequately protect public health. States such as New Jersey have set much lower health limits, following the recommendation of their own scientists.

The Delaware County suit is based on samples of ground water and soil at three locations: a fire company in Upper Darby where PFOA and PFOS were found in some places at hundreds of times above the EPA limit; a recycling and fire-training center at Haverford Township where PFOS was found in seven out of 10 soil samples, and at the county’s emergency services training center at Sharon Hill, where one PFOS sample was 700 times the EPA level. The fire company is also a plaintiff in the suit.

The lawsuit seeks damages to compensate the plaintiffs for reduced property values; the costs and damages related to PFAS contamination on their property, including the investigation, monitoring, treatment, testing, remediation, and disposal of the chemicals, as well as the loss of use of contaminated property.

It accuses the defendants of making and supplying the chemicals in the knowledge that they would be released into the environment during fire-training exercises.

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