Water litigation is a cornerstone of Beasley Allen’s toxic torts section because we understand the health of our bodies and our environment is directly tied to the purity of the natural resources from which we draw our drinking water, be it an underground water table, a river, a lake or reservoir, or even the rain.
Nobody disputes the connections between clean water and human health, yet water contamination continues to be a growing problem in the U.S. We believe it is critical to hold accountable those who contaminate our waterways and our drinking water, whether the contamination is intentional or the result of negligent practices.
Our commitment to holding corporations and other entities accountable for water contamination is reflected in our outstanding history of water litigation. Beasley Allen holds a $700 million verdict for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) contamination, the largest private environmental settlement in U.S. history.
According to the Groundwater Foundation, more than half of Americans get their drinking water from underground water sources. But even while this water may be hidden in underground aquifers, it remains highly susceptible to industrial pollutants and harmful microbes because of what happens above the surface.
A toxic substance released on land can seep through the soil. Driven by gravity and the introduction of rainwater, pollutants spilled, discharged, or released on land eventually reach the underground water tables that provide drinking water for millions of people.
Some of the most common sources of water pollution are:
• Industrial spilling or dumping: Oil, chemicals, salt, and other toxic substances may be intentionally dumped, accidentally spilled, or released from containment ponds.
• Storage tanks: More than 10 million storage tanks containing, oil, gas, and chemicals are buried in the U.S. Many of these are several decades old and are decaying, releasing harmful toxins into the soil and groundwater.
• Landfills: Toxic substances dumped in landfills can leach through the soil and into nearby bodies of water.
• Abandoned and uncontrolled hazardous waste sites: These are more abundant than you might think. According to the Groundwater Foundation and other sources, there are some 20,000 abandoned and/or uncontrolled industrial, military, and government hazardous waste sites at risk of releasing contaminants into the environment.
• Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”: This controversial form of natural gas extraction relies on an undisclosed cocktail of chemicals injected into underground shale deposits. Fracking companies insist this method is safe but one accident is all it takes to pollute an entire underground water source.
• Road salts and chemicals: Salts and chemicals used to keep roads de-iced or free of weeds can contaminate the soil.
• Atmospheric pollutants: The water supply on earth is finite and groundwater is part of the hydrologic cycle that constantly recycles and reforms H2O into vapor, ice, and water. Any contaminant present in one form may eventually contaminate other water sources.
• Agricultural applications and runoff: Fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides used on farms can enter well water through the soil or through runoff. In recent years, the widespread use of glyphosate-based Roundup has presented an escalating concern about its effects on environmental and human health.
Laws and regulations
The United States has had clean water laws in place since 1948 but it wasn’t until the 1970s that two federal laws vastly expanded water protections throughout the country and set standards for drinking water quality.
The Clean Water Act: In 1972, U.S lawmakers reorganized and expanded the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to form the “Clean Water Act” (CWA) that we know today. The CWA establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into U.S. waters and sets quality standards for surface waters.
With the CWA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implements pollution control programs, such as setting wastewater standards for industry and sets the bar for national water quality standards. States may set their own criteria for pollution controls and water quality, but the state regulations must at least meet federal standards.
The Safe Drinking Water Act: The Safe Drinking Water Act is a federal law that was enacted in 1974 to regulate and protect drinking water drawn from public sources, such as rivers, lakes, springs, and groundwater wells excluding private wells that provide water to fewer than 25 people.
The EPA sets the safety threshold for more than 90 contaminants in drinking water at the federal level. Water authorities must test the public water supply regularly for these contaminants and report their findings to the EPA. A public water supply containing pollutants above the EPA’s safety threshold will need to be cleaned. The EPA will direct the water authority on the measures to be taken in such cases.
States can establish their own drinking water standards as long as they meet the federal standards set by the EPA. The EPA and state authorities can also take enforcement actions against water authorities that violate the minimum safety standards and put consumers at risk.
Violations of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act that result in the contamination of water supplies and put people at risk of illness, injury, or death may cast a spotlight on poor industrial practices and/or negligence and can serve as important factors in water litigation.
What is PFAS? Should I be concerned about it?
PFAS are a family of manmade chemicals with strong water- and oil-repellant properties. They are also at the center of a growing body of water litigation. For decades, these chemicals have been widely used in the manufacture of non-stick, stain-resistant and water-repellant coatings on fabric, upholstery, carpeting, nonstick cookware, in firefighting foam and a multitude of other products. The chemicals have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment and they accumulate in the human body over time, potentially leading to a spectrum of health problems.
While two of the most widely used and toxic PFAS chemicals have been phased out of use in the U.S. — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) — they continue to be used in other countries for the manufacture of products that are imported into the U.S. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also requires the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS to be used for aviation firefighting operations at airports. These chemicals can and do find their way into the soil, nearby waterways, groundwater, municipal water supplies, and private wells.
A study by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University environmental health researchers located PFAS contamination in 43 states, including drinking water sources that serve approximately 20 million people. Industrial and military operations account for most of the PFAS-contaminated sites.
Chemicals in the PFAS family vary in toxicity, but PFAS and PFOS are known to be among the most hazardous for human health. Epidemiological studies have shown that exposure to the chemicals, even in trace amounts, can lead to serious health problems. These may include developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, and skeletal variations; testicular, kidney, pancreatic, and other cancers; liver damage; adverse immune effects, such as antibody production and weakened immunity; cholesterol changes, and thyroid problems, to name a few.
Beasley Allen’s Water Litigation
Our firm holds a $700 million verdict for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) contamination, the largest private environmental and water litigation settlement in U.S. history.
Additionally, our lawyers are currently working with cities, towns, municipalities and water boards in Alabama and other states that have been affected by perfluorinated compounds (PFC) contamination, including PFOA and PFOS water contamination. In May 2016, the EPA issued new lifetime health exposure guidelines for PFOA and PFOS in water supplies. After the EPA issued the new exposure limits, an advisory warning was provided to more than 50 water systems nationwide, including eight water systems in Alabama. (Any in Georgia?)
The water systems the EPA identified in its advisory exceeded these exposure limits, prompting our firm and several others to file lawsuits in an effort to remediate the water contamination, ensure the safety of water supplies in the future, and compensate consumers allegedly harmed by the toxic chemicals.
For example, Beasley Allen has worked with several other firms on a class action lawsuit against Dupont arising from contaminated water supplies near Dupont’s Chambers Works facility in Deepwater, New Jersey. The class-action suit alleges that DuPont discharged certain PFCs from this facility and contaminated the water supply in several cities and townships in Salem County, New Jersey. Our lawsuit seeks clean drinking water for the communities affected by DuPont’s groundwater contamination nd compensation for lost property values resulting from to the pollution.
Benzene Water Contamination
Benzene is a colorless or pale-yellow chemical that is formed in some natural processes and is also a byproduct and ingredient in a multitude of industrial applications. Benzene is a major threat to the environment and is extremely toxic to human health. According to the American Cancer Society, it is one of the top 20 most used and produced chemicals in the U.S.
Most benzene is inhaled as a gas through automobile exhaust and industrial emissions, but benzene water contamination is also another major source of exposure. The chemical quickly evaporates when exposed to air, but when it is concentrated in the soil or groundwater, it can linger for months or years. Benzene can also be absorbed through the skin. People who draw water from wells that may have been contaminated with the chemical should avoid bathing in it. When benzene is dumped or released into the environment in large concentrations, it can lead to
toxic exposures for workers and sometimes even entire communities.
Beasley Allen also handles cases involving leaking underground storage tanks. Thousands of storage tanks containing gasoline, oil and other potentially toxic substances are buried near gas stations throughout the Southeast and other parts of the country. Over time, these underground storage tanks can erode and develop leaks. When these containers leak, petroleum contaminants can move through the soil and pollute groundwater supplies with toxins including benzene, MTBE, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.
Prolonged exposure to benzene and these chemicals has been linked to a multitude of cancers, central nervous system damage, respiratory illnesses, kidney disease, liver dysfunction and blood disorders.
Legionnaires Disease is a serious type of pneumonia caused by inhaling water vapor or mist contaminated with the legionella bacteria. Once inside the body, the bacteria can rapidly multiply and infect the lungs. The bacteria can also infect humans when contaminated water is accidentally ingested into the lungs.
The Legionella bacteria is found naturally in lakes, ponds, streams, and other freshwater environments, but it becomes a health risk when it multiplies to form high concentrations inside human-made water systems, such as cooling towers for industrial air conditioning systems, plumbing systems, evaporative condensers, pools and spas, decorative fountains, and even inside water hoses, showerheads, and faucets. Legionella bacteria cannot thrive in water systems that are routinely cleaned and properly maintained.
Legionnaires Disease symptoms manifest in various forms of pulmonary distress, including coughing, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches, and headaches. This form of pneumonia can also result in nausea, diarrhea, and confusion. The disease is often deadly, particularly among older patients. About one in ten people who contract Legionnaires Disease die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Outbreaks of Legionnaires Disease are on the rise throughout the U.S., triggering a significant increase in U.S. water litigation. According to the CDC, about 7,500 cases of the disease are reported by state health departments every year. But because it is an underdiagnosed and underreported disease, the actual number of cases is believed to be more than twice the reported number. Water litigation involving Legionnaires Disease has steadily grown alongside the number of outbreaks in the past two decades.
Flint Water Crisis
Water can also become contaminated when it travels through plumbing systems that aren’t properly treated or maintained. Acidic water can promote corrosion in copper and lead pipes, delivering heavy metals and other toxins into your home. That is what happened in the Flint Water crisis – an ongoing public health crisis that started in Flint, Michigan in 2014 after city officials started tapping the highly contaminated Flint River for drinking water. State and city officials made this change without first treating the water with an anti-corrosive agent to prevent leaching from lead pipes. In April 2019, a U.S. Judge found that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was also to blame for the crisis, saying evidence showed the agency “was well aware that the Flint River was highly corrosive and posed a significant danger of lead leaching” to Flint residents.
As a result, as many as 12,000 children were exposed to harmful levels of lead. The water crisis also sickened at least 99 people with Legionnaires Disease, including 10 people who died.
The Flint Water crisis has since triggered a much broader concern about the threat of water contamination from lead pipes nationwide. One study cited by National Geographic estimated that “3.3 million utility service lines contain lead—plus twice as many connecting pipes, and countless amounts of lead solder. In addition, many homes have plumbing that contains the hazardous metal.”
Water Utility Rate Cases
Some water litigation involves economic losses unrelated to injury. Beasley Allen is investigating cases on behalf of municipalities that installed “smart” or automated water meters and/or billing software systems that have malfunctioned and resulted in a loss of water collection revenue. These systems are typically marketed to municipalities as an upgrade to the existing manual water meters that require a meter reader to physically check the amount consumed at a particular location and report those figures to billing. These upgrades are pitched as “self-paying” because they claim to result in more accurate measures of water consumption, more efficient collection of revenue, and streamline personnel by no longer requiring water meter readers. Unfortunately, automated water meters installed by some municipalities had manufacturing or design defects that caused inaccurate meter readings, failed to automatically transmit water consumption data to water service personnel, and issued inaccurate water bills to customers. These issues caused a disruption of water revenue collection as well as forced municipalities to incur additional costs to fix the problems.
Do You Have a Water Litigation Claim?
Beasley Allen lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section work to protect people and property from toxic chemicals and environmental pollution that result from negligence and wrongful conduct. Our lawyers are currently investigating water contamination as a result of PFC chemicals in addition to other types of water litigation. If you have any questions about a potential claim, please contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton, or Ryan Kral, who handle water litigation for our firm. In addition to filing claims for individuals, we also often represent state and municipal governments in litigation of this type.