Federal lawsuit filed over drinking water contamination on Whidbey

Lawyers for a North Whidbey woman filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against a manufacturing corporation and fire equipment companies they say are responsible for contamination of groundwater on the island with “highly toxic” chemicals found in a type of firefighting foam.

Testing by the Navy in recent years showed that wells near the Ault Field base on North Whidbey and Outlying Field Coupeville in Central Whidbey contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFASs, that are present in aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, used by Navy fire departments to extinguish aircraft fires.

The attorneys are seeking class-action status and hope to add potentially thousands of other current and former Whidbey Island residents as plaintiffs in the lawsuit; the town of Coupeville is also a potential plaintiff, attorneys said.

The law firm Edelson of San Francisco and Seattle attorney Robert Teel are representing Krista Jackson is the lawsuit against the 3M Company, Tyco Fire Products, Buckeye Fire Equipment Company, Chemguard Inc. and National Foam Inc.

Jackson and the attorneys emphasized that they are not suing the Navy or blaming it for the problem. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, claims that 3M and Tyco knew about the toxicity of the substances in the 1970s and that 3M internationally concealed the information from the public.

“Defendants collectively designed, produced, and distributed AFFF with knowledge that it contained highly toxic and long lasting PFASs,” the lawsuit states, “which would inevitably reach the water supply of and pose a significant health risk to humans that consume or have other exposure to that water.”

The 3M Company, a multinational conglomerate headquartered in Minneapolis, provided a statement in response to the lawsuit.

“3M acted responsibly in connection with its manufacture and sale of AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) and will defend its record of environmental stewardship,” the statement says.

The lawsuit states that more than $5 million in damages are being sought.

Attorney Christopher Dore of Edelson said similar lawsuits have been filed on behalf of communities and individuals near military bases across the country where groundwater has been similarly contaminated. He said this lawsuit will likely be consolidated with all the other cases at some point.

In addition, he said it’s possible that some individuals could file separate lawsuits, especially if they are experiencing health problems they feel are linked to the chemicals.

Jackson has lived at her home near the Ault Field base for 20 years; the Navy has been using the firefighting foam since the 1970s. She shares a private community well with neighbors.

Jackson said she became concerned about potential contamination after the Navy announced it was testing private wells for PFASs in 2016. She wasn’t included in the first round of testing, so she researched the issue extensively and hired a company to test her water.

The results showed that her water was indeed contaminated. The Navy also tested her water during a second phase of sampling and found it contained PFASs, but not at levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime advisory level. As a result, the Navy hasn’t supplied her with clean drinking water as it has those with higher levels of the chemicals.

A nearby neighbor’s water, however, tested at many times the advisory level, raising concerns that the level of the chemical in her water will increase in the future or was higher in the past because of the underground movement of the chemicals.

“There are nine homes hooked up to the well,” she said, “and some of those have children, including an infant.”

Jackson and the attorneys pointed out that other agencies and different states have set advisory levels significantly lower than the EPA’s advisory level. The level of PFASs in Jackson’s water is triple the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s minimum appreciable health risk level.

The Minnesota attorney general sued 3M for polluting water with PFAS compounds and won a $850-million settlement, the lawsuit says.

As the document states, PFASs have been found in Coupeville’s municipal water supply, but in amounts below the EPA’s lifetime advisory level. Nevertheless, the Navy has committed to creating a filtering system for the town’s water.

Dore said the town will be welcome to join the lawsuit.

The lawsuit will divide the plaintiffs into two classes, the attorney explained. One class will seek compensation for the effect the contaminants have on property values. Dore said that could include people who own properties not directly affected by the contaminants.

The other class will seek medical monitoring as well as compensation for impacts on health.

“Early diagnosis and treatment for the cancers, diseases, and disorders caused by PFAS exposure is essential to detect and mitigate long-term health consequences in Plaintiff and the Class,” the lawsuit states. “Simple procedures including, but not limited to, blood tests, skin evaluations, scans, urine tests, and physical examinations are well-established and readily available.”

The lawsuit outlines the danger the PFASs pose to human health. They persist in the environment and accumulate in the human body.

“Human observational (epidemiological) studies have associated PFOA and/or PFOS with kidney and testicular cancer,” the complaint states, “decreased birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, asthma, ulcerative colitis, and decreased response to vaccination.”

In addition, the chemicals have been shown to affect growth and learning abilities in children, interfere with hormones and increase cholesterol levels, the lawsuit says.

Dore said one of the goals of the lawsuit is to put an end to the use and manufacturing of the chemicals. The lawsuit states that 3M marketed a version of the AFFF as environmentally responsible because it contains PFAS chemicals with a lower number of atoms on the carbon chains. The lawsuit claims the chemicals are still harmful and accumulate in the body and the environment.

“Rather than abandon this line of dangerous chemicals, Defendants have elected to instead take a page out of drug dealers’ playbooks,” the lawsuit states. “In the same way that designer drugs are manufactured to skirt drug laws, some formulations of PFASs are being discontinued in favor of new and slightly different formulations of the same toxic compounds to replace them.”

The lawsuit claims that the companies acted with gross negligence, and/or willful, wanton, and careless disregard for the health, safety, and property of the plaintiff and class members.

Dore cautioned that the legal process will take time, especially since it involves multiple class-action lawsuit that will be combined.

Anyone interested in joining the lawsuit can go to www.whidbeyislandpfas.com.

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