Nine Orange County water agencies have retained a legal team to study whether to file suit to recoup the estimated $450 million cost of purifying drinking water in local wells contaminated with PFAS chemicals.
The PFAS compounds — long used in Scotchguard, Teflon and other products — have leached into groundwater supplies over several decades and have been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, liver and kidney damages and ulcerative colitis. It’s likely that 3M and DuPont, the primary manufacturers of PFAS products, would be defendants.
Acceptable levels for PFAS compounds have been steadily lowered by state regulators, prompting the closure of some 42 of the 195 wells in the county’s primary groundwater basin in the past year. The number of shuttered wells in the county is expected to reach 71 by the end of the year, according water officials.
Eleven retail water agencies in the county are affected by the contaminants and are developing costly new treatment systems.
“If we can get cost recovery from those who caused the problem, we think it’s appropriate so those costs aren’t passed on to our ratepayers,” said Roy Herndon, the lead staff person overseeing possible litigation for the Orange County Water District.
The district manages the county’s primary groundwater basin, which serves 19 member water agencies and 2.5 million residents. To date, eight of the 11 agencies with PFAS contamination have signed up with the Orange County Water District to pursue possible litigation.
If the Orange County agencies file suit, they would join of a growing trend of PFAS litigation in areas where there is no PFAS manufacturing.
A decade ago, the first wave of major lawsuits over PFAS chemicals — formally known as perfluorooctanesulfonic acid — came from places near such plants, where spilled or dumped toxins contaminated groundwater.
In 2017, chemical manufacturers DuPont and Chemours reached a $671 million settlement in a class-action suit brought by 3,550 people in West Virginia, who said they suffered health consequences from the toxic water. The case was portrayed in the last year’s Hollywood drama “Dark Waters.” And in 2018, 3M reached a $850 million settlement with the state of Minnesota for contaminating groundwater near its plant.
But as researchers find toxic repercussions from ever smaller quantities of the chemicals, lawsuits have started to be filed in areas where there are no manufacturing plants. The attorney general of Vermont, for instance, has filed suit against manufacturers for groundwater that’s been tainted by treated wastewater and runoff from landfills.
Normal treatment of wastewater and drinking water does not remove the PFAS toxins, which have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because of their resistance to breaking down in nature.
There’s evidence that Orange County’s groundwater contamination comes from the same type of sources cited in the Vermont lawsuit. New…