PITTSBORO — When the town’s board of commissioners voted to sue PFAS manufacturers during their Jan. 23 meeting, it marked the first time in North Carolina history a municipal government sued companies responsible for creating, selling, distributing and discharging PFAS chemicals.
The 51-page lawsuit was filed at the Chatham County Superior Court on Jan. 26, where the town demanded the court mandate the companies responsible for manufacturing PFAS, which has continuously contaminated the Haw River, reimburse and pay future costs of treating the contaminated water.
Here are the key takeaways from the complaint:
PFAS, also known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of manufactured chemicals commonly “used in industries such as aerospace, automotive, construction and electronics,” according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
These chemicals contain a chain of connected carbon and fluorine atoms, one of the strongest atomic bonds known to man. Because of this, PFAS doesn’t disintegrate easily.
PFAS may also be linked to increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women, decreases in infant birth weights, and an increased risk for kidney and testicular cancer, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Some studies have indicated Pittsboro residents have elevated levels of PFAS in their bloodstream and are among some of the people with the highest concentrations of PFAS in the United States, according to a PFAS exposure study conducted by Duke University’s Nicholas School of Environment.
The town of Pittsboro voted last June to investigate potential polluters upstream; that action paved the path to litigation. The action was taken after years of chemical discharges into the Haw River — Pittsboro’s source of drinking water — from several sources upstream.
These forever chemicals — so-called because of how long it takes for these substances to disintegrate — have contaminated Pittsboro’s water supply, resulting in the town having to spend more, including a recent $3.5 million Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) filtration system, to treat for unregulated contaminants, including PFAS, PFOS, PFOA, 1,4-Dioxane and more.
AFFF, also known as aqueous film forming foam, is a common product used in fire-fighting foam. The material is known to contain several forms of PFAS and was sited as one of the main sources of contamination in the lawsuit.
Chemical discharges in the Haw River have been under the spotlight over the last three to five years, but the use of PFAS in manufacturing dates back to the 1940’s. The suit claims the manufacturing companies either knew, or should’ve known, PFAS would be “very likely to contaminate the environment, including surface water and ground water, including the town’s drinking water supply.”
The complaint filed on Jan. 26 lists several PFAS manufacturers, including 3M, DuPont de Nemours and Company (DuPont), the Chemours Company, Tyco Fire Products LP and more.
Each company listed in the suit was cited for contributing to the manufacturing, selling and distribution of PFAS, as well as knowing prior to distribution the potential harm PFAS could cause.
The complaint lists six different claims made by the town’s attorneys: design defect, failure to warn, public nuisance, private nuisance, trespass and negligence.
The town stated in the lawsuit that the contamination of PFAS was caused byand the “defendants’ wrongful, deceptive and tortuous conduct,” and the negligence will result in the town and its taxpayers spending more money to treat for PFAS in water.
Pittsboro commissioners approved a motion last July to engage Sher Edling LLP, an organization based out of California which has extensive work in environmental-related legal processes, to investigate potential sources of PFAS discharges upstream.
Sher Edling LLP, along with Pittsboro Town Attorney Paul Messick Jr., filed the suit.
The suit was filed at Chatham County’s Superior Court on Jan. 26. The suit is set to be contested in Chatham County, but the defendants can file a motion to move the case to state or federal court, which would change where the case would be heard.
The town is seeking financial restitution for past and future damages caused by the contamination of PFAS in its water supply. This could be in the form of paying for water treatment plant renovations, the upkeep of the town’s new Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) filtration system, future treatment expenses and more.
The lawsuit aims to have the manufacturers pay for past and future costs for treating Pittsboro’s water supply. Some of the reimbursed costs would include the $3.5 million the town spent to install a GAC filtration system at the water treatment plant.
The future costs for treating Pittsboro’s water can’t be quantified, as a lot of different factors could impact what that amount would look like.
This is the first lawsuit of its kind in North Carolina from a municipal government, and it’s among one of the first in the country.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has filed multiple lawsuits to combat PFAS and AFFF manufacturers, including DuPont, 3M and Chemours. Two of Stein’s suits are related to the pollution at Piedmont-Triad International Airport, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River. According to the attorney general, the investigation into PFAS manufacturers could still bring more lawsuits to court.
Similary, 3M and Dupont have faced multiple other lawsuits in different states like in New Jersey, where four towns — instead of just one — and other suppliers filed suit, as reported by WHYY.
It’s hard to say — the length of the process is dependent on if the defendants will opt to request a switch to federal court, if a settlement is reached or if it goes to a jury trial.
The town said in its Jan. 23 meeting they’re working with Sher Edling LLP to possibly bring forth a separate lawsuit for 1,4-Dioxane manufacturers. There isn’t a timeline for an announcement regarding a 1,4-Dioxane related suit.
Pittsboro commissioners will continue to pursue a merger with the city of Sanford to increase Pittsboro’s water capacity.
Information regarding the next steps in the litigation process will be limited until either there is a settlement reached or the court elects to hear the case.
To find more information about Pittsboro’s history with PFAS contamination, read the News + Record’s updated timeline of events leading up to the litigation decision at https://www.chathamnewsrecord.com/stories/an-updated-timeline-of-pittsboros-fight-for-clean-water,15383.
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.