The city of Pensacola joined a growing legion of municipalities that are suing the manufacturers of highly toxic chemicals that have infiltrated the soil, groundwater and drinking water of cities across the nation.
The chemicals, commonly known as PFAS and PFAA, are toxic, man-made compounds that do not biodegrade and that move readily through soil and groundwater. They are commonly found in spray foam used to suppress fuel fires at airports and military bases, and frequently seep outward from industrial fields into surrounding groundwater and drinking wells.
Pensacola and three other Florida cities — Sanford, Melbourne and Tampa — have joined a federal, multi-district product liability lawsuit alleging manufacturers like 3M, DuPont and others knew the dangers of the chemicals, but sold them anyway.
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Orlando attorney Kenneth Wright, who filed the suit on behalf of Orlando-Sanford International Airport in November 2019, said that PFAS and PFAA are particularly difficult to deal with because they are “forever” chemicals that build up and never go away.
“Many chemical compounds we deal with that are contaminants, they break down, they change. This one doesn’t,” Wright said. “So, if it gets into the water, it can get into the biota of the fish. It can get into plants. It can get into grass, and it can get into cattle that graze on the grass. Once it gets into the environment, it doesn’t change, so it’s particularly difficult to remediate and also very expensive and time consuming.”
PFAS is a chemical that’s been used in household goods like food containers, non-stick cookware and stain repellents since the 1940s. The chemicals have been linked to birth defects, organ damage, increased risk of cancers and other adverse health impacts.
Pensacola’s lawsuit alleges manufacturer 3M has known of the dangers of the chemicals since the early 1980s, but did not begin phasing out the product until it was pressured to due so by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the early 2000s.
The suit also alleges that DuPont has been studying the potential toxicity of the chemicals since at least the 1960s and knew it was contaminating water drawn from the Ohio River. The EPA fined DuPont $10.5 million in 2005 after it “uncovered evidence DuPont concealed the environmental and health effects” of the chemical, but DuPont continued the manufacture and sale of the product through 2015, the lawsuit claims.
Pensacola’s lawsuit says it has used firefighting foam containing the chemicals at its six fire stations and at Pensacola International Airport, and that the defendants in the suit marketed and sold the dangerous product “with the knowledge that these toxic compounds would be released into the environment during fire protection, training, and response activities, even when used as directed and intended.”
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Along with 3M and DuPont, the lawsuit names dozens of smaller manufacturing companies from across the globe that have manufactured and distributed the chemicals.
The city is seeking compensation for its costs associated with past, present and future sampling, monitoring and remediation of contaminated sites. It is also seeking recompense for diminished property values, punitive damages, legal costs and other relief deemed appropriate by the court.
The Emerald Coast Utilities Authority filed a similar lawsuit in 2018, claiming PFAS had contaminated four water wells that had to be removed from service or remediated at great expense.
ECUA’s lawsuit, Pensacola’s lawsuit and those of dozens of other municipalities around the country have been rolled into one overarching case that is being overseen by a federal judge in South Carolina.