BP and its drilling partners were hit with over $60 billion in fines and settlements in connection with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. That remains the largest payout in any environmental case, but the legal costs associated with another issue are starting to catch up.
That issue is the widespread contamination of drinking water supplies with synthetic chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These substances, which are considered possible carcinogens, do not break down in the body or the environment and thus have been dubbed forever chemicals. Detectible level of PFAS can be found in just about everyone alive.
PFAS cases first gained attention in relation to the effort in West Virginia, dramatized in the film Dark Waters, to hold DuPont accountable for contaminating water with chemicals used as coatings for non-stick cookware. In 2017 DuPont and its spinoff Chemours each paid $335 million to settle litigation over the issue.
Now the settlement amounts have grown larger. Last year, 3M agreed to pay over $10 billion to public water suppliers around the country. The case is awaiting final court approval.
Final approval was recently given to a $1.85 billion settlement reached by DuPont, Chemours and DuPont’s other spinoff Corteva with a group of municipal water suppliers relating to contamination caused by PFAS in firefighting foam.
There have also been numerous settlements below $1 billion but still substantial. Last year the Belgian chemical company Solvay agreed to pay $393 million to the state of New Jersey for PFAS contamination at a plant in Gloucester County. The footwear company Wolverine World Wide paid a total of $96 million in two lawsuits connected to contamination in Michigan.
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, Honeywell International and 3M agreed to pay a total of $65 million in another firefighting foam case in upstate New York. DuPont is also a defendant in the case but has refused to settle.
It is encouraging to see these companies held responsible for their role in the proliferation of PFAS, but it is unclear whether the payouts will be sufficient to pay for the long-term cost of exposure to the chemicals. That is because we still don’t know the full extent of contamination, and there is growing evidence that the problem is massive. For example, NRDC has just come out with a report estimating that in California alone, water systems serving some 25 million residents—over 60 percent of the state’s population—are contaminated. The levels are likely higher in other parts of the country that have been less aggressive in limiting PFAS use.
Under pressure from lawsuits, regulators and activists, many companies have been phasing out their use of the chemicals. 3M has promised to cease its use of PFAS by the end of 2025. Yet many products containing the chemicals are still being imported from countries with less restrictive practices.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster caused widespread harm in the Gulf of Mexico and the communities along its shores, but the scope of PFAS contamination appears to be much wider and could end up standing with global warming as the two leading environmental crises of our era.