South Carolina attorney general sues chemical makers, marketers over firefighting foam pollution
The State October 18, 2023
Attorney General Alan Wilson has sued the makers and distributors of a key weapon used to fight fires at airports and military bases, alleging the material contains toxins that polluted South Carolina’s environment.
Wilson’s lawsuit, filed in state court Tuesday, says firefighting foam contained so-called forever chemicals that the manufacturers and distributors knew would contaminate the environment, even though other “reasonable alternatives’’ could be used.
The lawsuit is the second filed by Wilson, a conservative Republican not known for taking action on environmental issues against industry. But it comes amid thousands of legal cases nationally over contamination from the chemicals, which once were widely used to manufacture everyday products, as well as firefighting foam.
Most of the suits are against the makers and distributors of forever chemicals, formally known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
Recent settlements, in cases pending in a Charleston federal court, have garnered billions of dollars from two of the biggest makers and distributors, 3M and DuPont, to clean up drinking water contaminated by forever chemicals.
Wilson’s suit focuses gaining state compensation for natural resources damage, such as pollution of rivers and fish, from firefighting foam. But it also seeks compensation for damage to water supplies. A suit he filed in August against manufacturers alleged that other sources of PFAS — such as sewer sludge and wastewater discharges — had polluted the state’s environment.
The latest suit names 3M and DuPont, as well as four companies tied to Dupont, including Chemours.
It also names Tyco Fire Products and Chemguard, companies owned by Johnson Controls Inc. National Foam Inc., and Buckeye Fire Equipment Co., both of North Carolina, also are named.
Efforts to reach representatives of most companies were not successful Wednesday afternoon, but a spokesman for DuPont de Nemours, one of the DuPont companies named in the suit, distanced the company from the others.
DuPont de Nemours “has never manufactured’’ two major types of forever chemicals or firefighting foam, spokesman Daniel Turner said. A spokesperson for Johnson Controls declined comment.
“While we don’t comment on litigation matters, we believe this complaint is without merit, and we look forward to vigorously defending our record of safety, health and environmental,’’ Turner said in an email.
Wilson’s office said it hopes to recover damages from the companies because of pollution that occurred in South Carolina.
“Through this action, Attorney General Wilson is seeking to hold these companies accountable and award South Carolina damages for the decades of injury to South Carolina’s natural resources and public safety caused by the toxic forever chemicals,’’ Wilson’s office said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.
Hundrdeds of millions of dollars could potentially come South Carolina’s way as a result of the Wilson lawsuits. The funds would go to Wilson’s office and likely be marked for distribution by the Legislature.
A major problem emerging in South Carolina is the pervasiveness of forever chemicals.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has found them in virtually every river it has tested, as well as dozens of drinking water systems. Most recently, DHEC has documented forever chemical pollution in fish, crabs and oysters. The agency issued advisories recently against eating certain types of fish tainted by PFAS.
Utilities across South Carolina may be in need of funds because the cost of retrofitting water systems to control PFAS is substantial. Columbia estimates the cost could be more than $100 million.
Forever chemicals are a class of compounds, some of which were created and manufactured beginning in the 1940s. They have been used in non-stick frying pans, carpets and clothing. A major benefit is they are durable and good at repelling water.
They also were used in firefighting foam, a material routinely used in fire training centers, airports and military bases. The material, known formally as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, was developed in the 1960s to fight extremely hot, dangerous fires started by flammable liquids. The foams containing forever chemicals were effective at suffocating fires that could not be put out with just water.
But forever chemicals are also toxic, spread quickly in the environment and easily dissolve in water. They can get into sediments and fish, moving up the food chain, according to the attorney general’s lawsuit this week.
These chemicals can cause certain types of cancer, thyroid problems, elevated cholesterol and immune system deficiencies, making it hard to fight off disease.
Attorney Vincent Sheheen, a former Democratic candidate for governor who was hired by Wilson’s office to help on the case, said lawyers decided to file a second suit specifically about firefighting foam to complement the first suit that focused on other sources of PFAS in the environment.
That could help make specific cases against manufacturers and distributors in the most recent suit, he said.
“The AAAF pollution is very specific and it is easier to identify where it came from specifically,’’ Sheheen said. “We know it is clustered around air force bases, airports, these very specific places, whereas (PFAS in wider areas) are coming from products and manufacturing processes. We felt like it was best to deal with this in separate cases.’’
Wilson’s lawsuits follow a series of stories in The State chronicling the hazards of forever chemicals in sewer sludge, another suspected major source of PFAS pollution in groundwater, rivers and soil across South Carolina. Some 3,500 sludge fields dot the state. PFAS from sludge has been tied to contaminated water in Darlington County, The State reported in July.
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