Billions proposed to settle lawsuits over tainted water
Dutchess County and Newburgh are among the public entities eligible to receive a share of $11.5 billion that four companies have proposed paying to settle thousands of lawsuits over water supplies contaminated by “forever chemicals” that don’t easily break down in the environment.
The Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority and the City of Newburgh expect to receive compensation from 3M, one of the leading manufacturers of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and from three other companies involved in their use: Chemours, DuPont and Corteva.
3M, which said in December that it would cease making PFAS by the end of 2025, announced on June 22 that it will pay $10.3 billion over 13 years so operators of public systems can treat their contaminated water and test for the chemicals. Twenty days earlier, Chemours, DuPont and Corteva said they would pay a combined $1.2 billion into a fund to settle claims.
Companies that have manufactured or made or used products containing the chemicals have faced an estimated 4,000 lawsuits as states and the Environmental Protection Agency have moved to lower the amounts allowed in drinking water.
Fueling the alarm are studies linking the chemicals — used since the 1940s in products ranging from nonstick and stain- and water-resistant coatings to foams that suppress fires caused by highly flammable liquids like jet fuel — with health problems such as kidney and testicular cancers, high cholesterol and low birthweight.
Newburgh stopped drawing drinking water from Washington Lake, its longtime primary source, in May 2016 over high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), one of the most-used chemicals from the PFAS class.
The city temporarily switched to its backup source and, since then, the state has been reimbursing the city for purchases from New York City’s Catskill Aqueduct. Newburgh sued the manufacturers in 2018.
Michelle Kelson, Newburgh’s corporation counsel, said both settlements still require court approval and that potential beneficiaries will be given an opportunity to object to the proposals and opt in or opt out. The distribution of funds will be based on a mathematical formula that has yet to be determined, she said.
“It is too early in the process to estimate when funds will be distributed,” said Kelson.
Dutchess County’s Water and Wastewater Authority filed lawsuits against 3M and other companies because of contamination in 11 of the 18 water systems it owns and operates. Michael Keating, the authority’s executive director, said two of those systems are above New York State’s limit of 10 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA, another widely used PFAS.
The well supplying one of the systems has been turned off and another system whose wells are contaminated is being connected to Hyde Park’s water system.
“We’re happy that something’s being done to help us cope with the whole PFAS issue,” said Keating. “The compensation, hopefully, we get out of the lawsuit, that remains to be seen if it’s going to cover all the costs.”
Other litigants include Dutchess County, which sued over a contaminated well that supplied Hudson Valley Regional Airport in Wappinger Falls, and the Putnam Valley school district, which sued 3M and other companies in December over the contamination of the well at its elementary school.
The chemicals have also been detected in Beacon and Cold Spring. The levels of PFOS measured in Beacon’s water supply ranged between 0 and 2.4 parts per trillion (ppt), and PFOA levels were measured as high as 1.88 ppt in 2021, according to the city’s water-quality report for 2022.
The most recent water-quality report on Cold Spring’s website is from 2017, three years before the state adopted its standards for PFOA and PFOS and required that public water systems begin routine testing for the chemicals.
But the village’s 2021 report, provided by the Putnam County Health Department, shows its water testing positive for 1.59 ppt of PFOA in the fourth quarter of that year; neither PFOA or PFOS were detected in any other test from 2021. Cold Spring’s 2022 report is not yet available.