RACINE — The city has joined more than 20 other Wisconsin municipalities in national litigation over PFAS water contamination.
Chemical companies like 3M, DuPont, Chemours and Corteva have begun settling billion-dollar lawsuits with municipalities over contaminated drinking water.
The Common Council voted in the affirmative Tuesday on a retainer agreement with Napoli Shkolnik to represent the city’s interest in PFAS-related litigation. The company represents more than 20 other Wisconsin municipalities.
Scott Letteney, city attorney, explained the need to pursue litigation.
“In light of the emerging concern surrounding PFAS water contamination, which is arguably one of the most significant threats to public water system quality in recent times, the City of Racine is taking proactive measures to safeguard its residents,” he said in a written statement.
“I believe firmly that the financial burden of remediation should not fall on the shoulders of our taxpayers and water rate payers,” Letteney added. “Those who have discharged these chemicals to our environment must be held accountable.”
The retainer agreement with Napoli Shkolnik includes a contingent fee arrangement, plus actual direct costs, to be paid from any judgment or settlement.
The negative health effects of exposure to PFAS contamination include: increased risk for cancer (prostate, kidney testicular), decreased fertility, increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women, reduced ability for the body to fight infection, and possible developmental delays in children.
Racine drinking water
The Racine Water Utility tested its water in the fourth quarter of 2022. The results showed evidence of PFOA at 1.73 ppt (parts per trillion) and PFAS of 1.64 ppt – rates well below the state and federal standard but above the EPA’s recommendation of zero.
On Aug. 1, 2022, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced the state’s drinking water code would be revised to set maximum limits for PFAS and PFOA at 70 ppt for either chemical individually or combined.
The limit of 70 ppt was the recommendation of the EPA in 2016. However, as scientists continued to study the impacts of PFAS on public health, they recommended lowering the rate.
On March 14, 2023, the EPA announced it was seeking to lower the enforceable rate to 4 ppt with a recommended rate of zero. Once the lower enforceable rate is in place, Wisconsin will have to update its limits.
Letteney cautioned the public about the Racine Water Utility’s one-time test results.
“We understand that water testing offers merely a snapshot in time, and results can vary with each testing date,” he said.
“In the context of recent settlements in federal court, such as with the 3M corporation, even a detectable threshold of 1 part per trillion can be significant,” he explained. “Given the short timeline involved with these settlements, it is important for the City of Racine to act quickly to protect the interests of the city and its residents.”
They call them ‘forever chemicals’
PFAS are synthetic chemicals known as “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in the body and the environment without breaking down for very long periods of time.
There are thousands of such chemicals with different names. Some chemical companies – such as 3M – have announced they would stop manufacturing PFAS.
The EPA calls the accumulation of these chemicals in the environment “emerging contamination” because science has only recently developed the ability to test for them and their effect on the human body is still being studied.
The chemicals were developed in the 1940s and used pervasively in the 1950s and afterwards in everything from the coating on cooking pans to cosmetics.
PFAS were also used in firefighting foam, which was required by the federal government to be used at airports and military installations due to its effectiveness in putting out flammable liquid fires.
Exposure to PFAS in firefighting foam may have led to increased cancer rates in firefighters who are involved in separate litigation against the manufacturers of PFAS.
Firefighter foam may also have resulted in expansive water contamination in areas around airports and military bases.
According to AP reporting, the city of La Crosse tested more than 100 private wells downstream from its regional airport in 2016 and found 40 had PFAS contamination above state limits and nine had contamination above 1,000 ppt.
City officials have stated they believe the contamination can be traced to firefighting foam used at the La Crosse Regional Airport.
Other sites of contamination have been tentatively linked to manufacturing.
According to reporting from Wisconsin Public Radio, the private wells in the community of Stella, in Oneida County, showed contamination levels in private wells from 1,660-2,910 ppt, which is 20-40 times higher than the state’s maximum limit.
Residents have filed suit against 3M and a Rhinelander paper mill claiming land application of waste led to the contaminated wells.
Many residents of Stella must use bottled drinking water due to the contamination of their well water.
Stephen Acqurio, of Napoli Shkolnik, New York, addressed the Finance and Personnel Committee on Sept. 11 to outline the issues of PFAS-contaminated water.
“During the manufacturing process in the 1950s, the manufacturers and industry were dumping the by-products into the soil, emitting it into the air, and pouring it into streams, lakes, ponds and oceans,” he said.
“Now we’re finding what’s called PFAS everywhere – all around the globe,” he said.
Napoli Shkolnik represents more than 20 municipalities in Wisconsin in the battle to get companies who manufactured PFAS chemicals to help pay for the cleanup.
Suppressing the truth
In 2023, researchers published an article in the Annals of Global Health revealing chemical companies – particularly 3M and Dupont – may have known as early as the 1960s that PFAS was a dangerous contaminant.
According to the authors, the industry responded by taking a page from tobacco and pharmaceutical companies to suppress the truth.
In “The Devil They Knew: Chemical Documents Analysis of Industry Influence on PFAS Science,” researchers showed how some in the industry worked to suppress unfavorable research and distort public discussions of PFAS contamination.
This article was informed by the following:
- U.S. EPA Proposes Drinking Water Regulations for PFAS (wef.org)
- Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) | US EPA
- Tests reveal PFAS contamination in 40 La Crosse-area wells | AP News
- Stella residents sue 3M and Rhinelander paper mill for PFAS contamination of private wells | Wisconsin Public Radio (wpr.org)
- Companies Hid Dangers of PFAS Forever Chemicals For Decades | Time
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