3M, Carpet Industry Face Growing Alabama Water Suits

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By Chris Marr

Stain-blocking chemicals used in carpet found their way into Alabama water supplies and are now the subject of lawsuits against dozens of carpet and chemical manufacturers.

A pair of lawsuits by Alabama municipal water utilities is “just the tip of the iceberg,” said attorney Rhon Jones of Beasley Allen P.C. in Montgomery, who is representing the utilities. Water systems throughout the U.S. have filed or are working on filing similar lawsuits over water contaminated with the perfluorinated chemicals PFOA and PFOS, Jones told Bloomberg BNA May 16.

For the Gadsden and Centre, Ala., water systems, the alleged source of contamination is Dalton, Ga., the self-proclaimed “carpet capital of the world,” where manufacturers add perfluorinated chemicals to their products for stain resistance, non-stick and water-blocking qualities and traces end up discharged in their wastewater.

“You have a massive carpet manufacturing and recycling operation, which uses the PFCs heavily, manufactured by people like 3M and DuPont,” Jones said.

Jones filed suit May 15 in the Circuit Court of Cherokee County, Ala., on behalf of Centre’s water and sewer board against 3M, DuPont and more than 30 carpet manufacturers, including industry leaders Beaulieu of America, Mohawk Industries and Shaw Industries ( Water Works and Sewer Board of the Town of Centre v. 3M et al., Ala. Cir. Ct., No. 13-CV-2017-900049, 5/15/17 ). The complaint seeks damages to cover the cost of an upgraded water filtration system, among other expenses.

He filed a nearly identical suit in September 2016 on behalf of Gadsden’s water system. Both water systems report PFOA and PFOS concentrations exceeding the drinking water health advisory guidance of 0.07 parts per billion that the Environmental Protection Agency issued in May 2016.

The lawsuits cite studies, including research by the C8 Health Project, indicating the chemicals cause health problems including testicular cancer, kidney cancer and thyroid disease.

3M also faces at least two other lawsuits in Alabama, one by the Tennessee Riverkeeper and another by the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority related to 3M’s own manufacturing operations at its Decatur, Ala., facility.

Companies Deny Harmful Levels

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was commonly used in manufacturing, and contamination by the chemical is believed to be widespread nationally. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) also was used in a range of consumer products.

3M stopped making the long-chain chemistries PFOA and PFOS more than a decade ago, although it disputes that the chemicals pose health risks at the levels present in Alabama water supplies, according to William A. Brewer III, partner at Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors in Dallas, who is representing 3M.

“We believe the claims against 3M simply lack merit,” Brewer told Bloomberg BNA in a May 16 email. “3M was not the proximate cause of any portion of plaintiff’s alleged harm.”

He previously told Bloomberg BNA that the company’s Decatur, Ala., plant is more than 150 miles away from Dalton, where the Gadsden and Centre water utilities allege the carpet industry wastewater originated. 3M has been working on remediation on and around its Decatur site since 2006 under an agreement with EPA.

“We notice that the lawsuit names more than 30 carpet and textile companies,” Brewer said in October, in response to the Gadsden water utility complaint. “We do not speak on behalf of the other parties; however, we know that 3M acted responsibly at all times.”

Attorneys for the carpet companies didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s requests for comment.

Shaw Industries Inc., a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said in a court filing that its operations didn’t lead to downstream water contamination. The company previously acknowledged that it used PFOA and PFOS and that traces of the chemicals were discharged through the wastewater system and eventually into a nearby river.

But the company denied the concentrations of perfluorinated chemicals in the plaintiff’s water supply present a health risk or that there is any proof of health risks connected to its manufacturing operations, according to its Nov. 1 answer to the Gadsden water utility case.

Defendant Universe Expanding

The universe of defendants facing lawsuits over alleged PFOA and PFOS contamination continues to expand, according to Jones and Philadelphia attorney James J. Pepper of the Pepper Law Firm LLC.

Pepper is pursuing personal injury cases for plaintiffs with certain illnesses that might be linked to PFOA and PFOS exposure, after several water sources were shut down in suburban Philadelphia. The source of contamination there is thought to be nearby military bases, where firefighting drills were conducted using firefighting foam that contained the chemicals.

He has sued or plans to sue the companies that made the firefighting foam, as well as the federal government for its operation of the military bases.

“It’s totally infiltrated much of the water table in the surrounding areas,” Pepper told Bloomberg BNA May 16. “It’s very close to home. The water well on my block growing up—the Warminster Township—was shut down.”

The Alabama lawsuits struck him as novel. He said he’s heard mostly of personal injury lawsuits rather than cases where water utilities sue for damages, although he said the cases make sense to him.

“These chemicals stay in the water table for many years. Local water authorities simply don’t have the resources to deal with it—nor in all fairness should they,” Pepper said. “The companies that polluted the water should be forced to clean it up. And filing a lawsuit like this is the only mechanism by which they will be required to do so.”

3M, DuPont Face Other Litigation

3M and DuPont have faced other lawsuits.

DuPont reached a $670 million settlement in February to resolve 3,500 personal injury lawsuits from West Virginia and Ohio. In those cases, plaintiffs claimed DuPont dumped PFOA and PFOS contamination into their water supplies, causing them to get cancer and other serious illnesses.

3M is in the midst of a lawsuit by the attorney general of Minnesota, where the company has its headquarters, among other litigation.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cMarr@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

For More Information

The Centre, Ala., complaint is at http://src.bna.com/oVO.

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