LA CROSSE, Wis. (CN) — A city in western Wisconsin on Thursday sued multiple chemical manufacturers it claims polluted local wells with firefighting products they knew contained toxic manmade chemicals.
Filed in La Crosse County Circuit Court by the city of La Crosse, the complaint alleges Minnesota-based manufacturing giant 3M and more than 20 other companies involved in chemical production made and sold firefighting foam they knew for decades contained per- and polyflouroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS.
PFAS – also known as "forever chemicals" for their resistance to dissolution – are chemical compounds that can be found in nonstick cookware, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays, a number of household cleaning products and the types of firefighting foam that are the focus of the lawsuit.
Epidemiological studies have linked forever chemicals to increased cholesterol levels, low birth weights, decreased fertility, thyroid disorders and some cancers.
PFAS can make their way into the environment and seep into water tables in many ways, such as through accidental spills and ordinary disposal of consumer products. They can also be found in the tissue and blood of fish and wildlife, including those consumed by people.
The city's lawsuit argues the manufacturers could have foreseen the public health risks associated with forever chemicals, not the least of which their persistence and mobility throughout the food chain, but did not disclose that knowledge and kept making the chemicals anyway.
"Defendants were aware since the 1960s and 1970s that [the chemicals] were toxic, did not biodegrade, are persistent in the environment, move easily through soil and groundwater, and pose a significant risk to human health and safety, yet defendants elected to manufacture and sell products utilizing these chemicals without warning their customers, placing profits over public health and safety," the complaint says.
The firefighting foams in question were used for decades by fire departments, industrial facilities, and civilian and military airports, the lawsuit states, including La Crosse Regional Airport.
Unaware that the foam was harmful, airport personnel routinely used it to fight fires and in annual training exercises, according to the complaint. The chemicals seeped into the groundwater at the airport and into a flow zone south of the airport, polluting both public and private wells area residents used for drinking water.
Since discovering the presence of PFAS, La Crosse officials have had to engage in widespread testing to determine how bad the contamination is, hire experts to help them mitigate the problem and provide residents with bottled water.
The city's lawsuit claims the testing has revealed PFAS levels far above state and federal standards. The Environmental Protection Agency says the chemicals have been in circulation since the 1940s and has set health advisory levels for them at 70 parts per trillion for lifetime exposure in drinking water.
Represented by Erin Dickinson with the Crueger Dickinson firm located in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay, the city seeks undetermined damages to cover the costs of investigating and treating the pollution caused by the forever chemicals and declaration of the manufacturers' negligence.
3M pushed back against the allegations in a statement Thursday night.
"3M acted responsibly in connection with its manufacture and sale of [aqueous film-forming foam] and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship," the company said.
Tyco Fire Products and AGC Chemicals Americas, two manufacturers named as defendants, could not immediately be reached for comment on the lawsuit.
Forever chemicals have long been on Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers' radar, coming into sharper focus with a public push to address the issue two years ago, when an executive order from the governor related to the public health risks presented by PFAS declared 2019 "The Year of Clean Drinking Water."
The Democrat spearheaded the creation of a PFAS Action Council under the state Department of Natural Resources and has earmarked more than $20 million to fund continued PFAS testing and remediation efforts in his recently announced biennial budget.
Evers also announced in January that he, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and the state Department of Administration are pursuing their own legal action against PFAS contaminators. The governor's office did not respond to an email requesting an update on the status of that legal action on Thursday.
Because there have been high-profile detections of PFAS all over the state in recent years, from Lake Superior to Madison, to Marinette and to La Crosse, fighting forever chemicals has some bipartisan support in the Badger State, but legislative efforts have so far not been easy-coming.
A GOP-authored bill from the state Senate restricting the use of firefighting foams was signed into law by Evers in February 2020, but in December the Wisconsin State Journal reported a GOP-controlled rules committee blocked enforcement of a temporary DNR rule put in place pursuant to that law and stripped away some of its key language on the ground that it was ambiguous and the natural resources agency had acted beyond its authority.
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