Just under 100 plaintiffs have filed a class action suit against the Midwest chemical company, 3M, and several other defendants, who manufactured substances, known as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). Plaintiffs claim that the PFCs – which were used in firefighting foam at the nearby Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington – contaminated the ground water, leading to negative public health effects and diminished property value. The class action follows hard on the heels of a settlement reached in February, when 3M agreed to pay $850 million after plaintiffs alleged the company dumped PFCs for 40 years in the area surrounding Minneapolis. These cases are just a small sample of the legal action that has emerged around PFCs and other related chemicals.
The class action, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington, touches on a widespread issue affecting every corner of the US – wherever there is a military base with a history of using firefighting foam. The Intercept has been covering the pandemic as it continues to affects countless communities nationwide. One recent report details the story of Lori Cervera who, seemingly out of nowhere, received a diagnosis of stage 2 kidney cancer. Without a family history or any other conceivable cause, Cervera took it upon herself to do some research. What she found astounded her.
One possible cause of kidney cancer is a chemical known as perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFOA), a subclass of the aforementioned PFCs. PFOA, together with PFOS, have been linked to kidney disease and were originally manufactured by DuPont to be used in products such as Teflon. The chemicals were also used in the synthesis of firefighting foam – to put out airplane fires and to train soldiers. In Cervera’s case (and in so many other cases) a nearby base used the foam for years, leading to groundwater contamination in the surrounding area. In fact, Cervera’s local municipality, Warminster, PA, has the third highest rate of PFOS in the country.
Sickness in Southeastern PA
This state of affairs has resulted in a class action suit filed by residents of Southeastern PA. Hope Grosse, who grew up playing in the creek that ran through the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster, began to see, over the years, severe health consequences in her family. Her sister suffered from an autoimmune disorder; her pets died after tumors devoured them; and her father contracted brain cancer. Grosse, herself, became ill with stage 4 melanoma.
Residents Take Action
As a result, Grosse and several other residents filed a lawsuit against 3M and a number of other manufacturers: the Buckeye Fire Protection Co., Chemguard, Tyco Fire Products and Angus Fire, to name a few. Grosse and her counterparts have faced an uphill battle. Incapable of pursuing legal action against the government due to sovereign immunity, they have opted to take on the manufacturers, who have attempted to block the lawsuit, arguing that, because they have government contracts, sovereign immunity applies to them as well. But the residents of Warminster, PA, will continue to fight, as litigators have several lawsuits on deck.
Many Liable Parties
Andrew Biviano, a Spokane City Councilman representing the plaintiffs in the class-action in Washington, has remarked on the difficulty of bringing claims in PFC cases: “There are multiple parties that could be held liable for this,” he said. “For something like this – such a disaster – mistakes were probably made all along the way.” And indeed, mistakes have been made in the area surrounding Fairchild, where 81 wells have shown PFC levels exceeding the permissible threshold imposed by the EPA. The Air Force has announced that it would install water filters for residents, many of whom have suffered from health problems such as miscarriages, thyroid issues, cancer and birth defects. As of April, only 13 residents have accepted the filters.
These lawsuits could go a long way in exposing some of the gross negligence that has led to a nationwide outbreak of PFC-related illness. In documents uncovered prior to the $850 million settlement involving 3M, it became apparent that the company knowingly used funding to “command the science” as a “defensive barrier[…] to litigation.” Basically, 3M provided funding to scientists like John Giesy, who is in a position to review nearly half the papers published about PFC ecotoxicology.