CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — A bellwether trial over chemical contamination in public water systems was continued Monday after attorneys told the court they were nearing a settlement agreement.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel wrote in an order filed Monday that counsel for 3M has for weeks engaged in “serious settlement discussions” to resolve claims it knowingly contaminated water supplies through the production of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
On Sunday evening, parties told the judge they believed a settlement agreement was “achievable” but they needed more time to finalize the deal and obtain approval.
Gergel, who has presided over the multidistrict litigation since 2018, wrote that after lengthy discussion with the attorneys and a court-appointed mediator he was “firmly persuaded” that the bellwether trial should be delayed as the talks continue.
More than 4,000 plaintiffs, including many local and state governments, have sued 3M and other companies for manufacturing or selling firefighting foams that contained PFAS, a class of compounds that are used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products.
The federal trial in Charleston, South Carolina, would have addressed only those claims made by Stuart, Florida, a small city located off the Atlantic coast, but it offered legal observers insight into a sprawling case that could rival the asbestos crisis in its impact.
PFAS, sometimes called “forever chemicals,” persist in the environment over time and present a potential health risk to humans and animals, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Scientific studies have linked PFAS exposure to decreased fertility, developmental delays in children and certain cancers.
Aqueous film forming foam, which contained PFAS, was used for decades to fight fires involving petroleum products and other flammable liquids, causing the toxic chemical to leach into public water systems and expose residents to health risks, according to plaintiffs.
3M has known since the 1970s that certain PFAS chemicals could endanger human health and the environment, but hid that knowledge from the public, the plaintiffs allege. Facing pressure from the EPA, the Minnesota-based company began phasing out PFAS-based foams in 2000, but never issued a recall or guidelines for how to safely dispose of its product.
In March, the EPA proposed regulations that would limit the acceptable levels of six PFAS chemicals in public drinking water. The agency expects to finalize the regulations by the end of the year.
The trial’s delay came after an announcement Friday that three other chemical companies in the suit — Dupont, Chemours and Corteva — had reached an agreement to settle claims for nearly $1.2 billion. The settlement would not cover personal injury claims against the companies brought by individuals exposed to PFAS or claims from states concerning contamination of natural resources.
Bloomberg reported Friday that 3M was negotiating a $10 billion payout to resolve the suit.
Gergel ordered the attorneys to provide weekly updates on their settlement negotiations and file a final report within 21 days if an agreement is not reached.Follow @SteveGarrisonPC
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