By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Lawyers for a Whidbey Island woman filed a lawsuit in federal court Feb. 5 against companies they say are responsible for contaminating groundwater with “highly toxic” chemicals found in firefighting foam.
Testing by the U.S. Navy in recent years showed that wells near properties of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS, that are present in aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, which is 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. The town of Coupeville is also a potential plaintiff, the attorneys said.
The Edelson law firm of San Francisco and Seattle attorney Robert Teel are representing Krista Jackson in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, Buckeye Fire Equipment Co., 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 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 lawsuit seeks more than $5 million in damages.
In response, Minneapolis-based 3M issued a statement: “3M acted responsibly in connection with its manufacture and sale of AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) and will defend its record of environmental stewardship.”
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 the other cases at some point.
Jackson has lived at her home near the Ault Field, the main area of the naval air station, 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 and hired a company to test her water.
The test 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 federal Environmental Protection Agency’s “lifetime” advisory level. As a result, the Navy hasn’t supplied her with clean drinking water as it has for those whose water has 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 Jackson’s 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,” Jackson said, “and some of those have children, including an infant.”
Jackson and the attorneys point 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 federal 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.
PFAS has 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.
The lawsuit will divide plaintiffs into two classes — one seeking compensation for the effect the contaminants have on property values, the other class seeking medical monitoring and compensation for impacts on health.
The lawsuit outlines the danger PFAS poses to human health. It persists in the environment and accumulate in the human body.
Studies have linked them to kidney and testicular cancer, the lawsuit states, as well as “decreased birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, asthma, ulcerative colitis, and decreased response to vaccination.”
Dore said one of the goals of the lawsuit is to put an end to the use and manufacturing of the chemicals.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.