The settlement of the class-action lawsuit against DuPont for making the chemical C8 may be a sign of things to come as two other communities across the country have proceeded with lawsuits of their own.
A lawyer representing the plaintiffs in Minnesota and Alabama, the site of the two class-action lawsuits, said the Monday settlement with DuPont approved by a Wood County judge only validates his clients' position.
At the same time the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, environmental advocacy group, is urging other communities across the country to look into their drinking water. The group has identified several manufacturing facilities across the country where the Teflon chemical PFOA, or C8, is detected.
Lauren Sucher, spokeswoman with the group, said the goal is to avoid a situation like DuPont's, where citizens scramble to determine how much of the chemical is in their drinking supplies.
"We're not trying to advocate for or against future lawsuits, but we hope that other communities around the country will take notice of what's happened in Marietta and Parkersburg and start looking into it now," Sucher said. "Maybe they can stop it from entering their drinking supplies. That's the best scenario."
On Monday, Wood County, W.Va. Circuit Judge George W. Hill approved the settlement of the nearly $343 million class-action lawsuit alleging C8 contaminated water supplies around DuPont's Washington Works plant near Parkersburg across the Ohio River from western Washington County.
The lawsuit was filed in August 2001 on behalf of residents living near DuPont's Washington Works plant, located on the Ohio River just across from the Little Hocking Water Association water wells. The citizens say their drinking water was contaminated by the chemical.
The approval clears the way for more testing of the chemical's effect on human health and ensures six area water districts will receive new treatment equipment.
If the testing shows that C8 is not harmful to humans, DuPont would be free from future lawsuits. However if a link is established, residents with a disease or health problem related to C8 could seek additional compensation beyond the $343 million settlement.
Paul Bossert, plant manager of the Washington Works facility, said the company is pleased with the settlement because ultimately the study will prove that C8 is harmless.
"We believe (the study) is going to prove out pretty much the same way all the studies have proven out and that is that there is no link and our products are safe," Bossert said.
Bossert said he could not speculate on the effect the DuPont settlement would have on other lawsuits or pending lawsuits.
But Rhon Jones, the attorney with Beasley Allen, of Montgomery, Ala., representing the plaintiffs in the Minnesota lawsuit and one of the Alabama lawsuits, said the settlement is further proof that exposure to the chemical C8 is significant.
"What I read in the paper about the West Virginia case certainly underscores the seriousness of the problem and in my mind it certainly gives validity to the idea that the problem can be significant," Jones said.
The class action lawsuits in Alabama and Minnesota are still in the beginning stages and seeking class action status, Jones said.
In Decatur, Ala. neighbors of the 3M Co.'s plant there are suing the company for the production of C8 and another chemical, citing decades of contaminated soil and groundwater and lowered property values.
In Minnesota, the 3M plant in Cottage Grove sold PFOA to customers like DuPont for use in its Teflon non-stick coatings.
Meanwhile the Environmental Protection Agency began an investigation into the chemical in Alabama while a Minnesota agency devoted to protecting the state's environment is also looking into C8.
Since 2002, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been asking questions about the levels of C8 that citizens there have been exposed to. The Minnesota Department of Health is also looking into the matter.
Mike Rafferty, information officer with the MPCA, said the agency has been following the lead of the EPA and information released from 3M.
Rafferty said judging from the settlement in Parkersburg and pending lawsuits in Minnesota and Alabama, the C8 problem is definitely more than a local problem now.
"The position of the agency is that this is probably more than just a local thing since it's been found in polar bears and fish in different parts of the country," Rafferty said. "… It's certainly not just our state that's affected, even though the company within our state originated the product."
The preliminary survey from Environmental Working Group identified at least six other facilities that use C8 in their operations.
Sucher said communities are sometimes forced into lawsuits because it's the only way they can get the attention of the courts or the federal government.
"Unfortunately the federal government's policy up until now has been to use chemicals first and ask questions later," Sucher said. "If we were to look before we leap maybe we wouldn't be in this position of having an entire nation showing up with pollution in their blood."