Foam used to extinguish fires introduced “forever chemicals” into Fort Worth’s water supply. Now, the city wants the companies responsible for creating and marketing the foam to pay up.
In a public notice posted May 31, city officials signaled their intention to pursue damage claims against the “manufacturers, designers, marketers, distributors, formulators, promoters, and/or sellers” of firefighting foam and other products containing perfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS.
PFAS refers to thousands of man-made chemicals that have been used in consumer products since the 1950s. Most Americans have been exposed to PFAS through drinking water and food packaging, nonstick cookware, cosmetics, carpets and firefighting foams, among other products, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Because PFAS chemicals accumulate in the environment and people’s bodies rather than break down, they are known as “forever chemicals.” Exposure to high levels of PFAS has been linked to increased risk of some cancers, developmental delays in children, decreased fertility and reduced ability to fight infections, among other effects.
Fort Worth’s desired outcome is to recover damages for the “possible soil and groundwater contamination” caused by the defendants’ products, in addition to any other relief allowed by law, according to the notice.
The city intends to hire three outside law firms to represent it in these claims on a contingency fee basis — that is, the firms will only receive the money if they successfully secure a payout for the city.
City Council members are set to vote on the legal contract during their June 13 meeting. A city spokesperson didn’t offer further comment.
If the legal agreement is approved, Fort Worth will join the ranks of a growing number of U.S. cities and states that have recently filed suit against manufacturers who used the chemicals in their products.
This week, Maryland became one of the most recent states to take action with a lawsuit against chemical manufacturers, including 3M and Dupont. Baltimore, Philadelphia, and San Diego are among the cities that have filed lawsuits, arguing that the manufacturers of these products knew they were dangerous and sold them anyway, hiding the information from the public.
Last year, 3M announced its plans to stop manufacturing or selling products with PFAS by the end of 2025. The company has already reduced use of the chemicals over the past three years, according to the announcement.
“While PFAS can be safely made and used, we also see an opportunity to lead in a rapidly evolving external regulatory and business landscape to make the greatest impact for those we serve,” 3M chief executive officer Mike Roman said in December.
Cities facing high costs from EPA regulations
The city’s legal moves come shortly after the EPA proposed the first national drinking water standard for PFAS chemicals in March.
Public utilities like Fort Worth’s water department will be required to monitor six PFAS chemicals and reduce contamination if levels rise above the standard deemed safe by the federal government, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage.
Enormous costs are on the horizon for Fort Worth and other cities facing the prospect of reducing PFAS contamination in their water supply, said city water director Chris Harder. All treatment options are expensive, and water utilities will compete for a limited pool of federal dollars available to address contaminants like PFAS, Harder said.
“There’s a lot of complexity and cost associated with different mitigation techniques when it comes to treatment that we’ll be investigating,” he said.
The city will aggressively pursue any grant or low-interest loan opportunities available, Harder said. Fort Worth will also initiate monthly PFAS testing starting in July, in addition to federally mandated testing that began in January. The first round of test results, published in May, detected seven PFAS chemicals in the city’s water supply.
‘Forever chemical’ concerns not new to Fort Worth firefighters
In Fort Worth, the Navy tested private water wells within a one-mile radius of the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base as part of an investigation into how chemical-laden foam affected nearby groundwater. Unsafe levels of PFAS chemicals were detected in at least one private drinking water well near the base in 2020.
City and military officials aren’t the only ones concerned about “forever chemicals.” Fort Worth firefighters are worried about occupational health risks that come along with handling these products frequently. Between 2002 and 2019, cancer caused 66% of career firefighter line-of-duty deaths, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Several Fort Worth firefighters have joined class-action lawsuits against foam manufacturers, Michael Glynn, president of the local firefighter union IAFF 440, said. The union chapter’s parent organization, IAFF, is also doing research and working with manufacturers to get PFAS-free equipment and gear, he said.
Fort Worth firefighters have expressed concerns about the city’s response to occupational cancer in the department, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage. There are also disagreements over workers compensation claims for occupational cancer between the union and the city, Glynn said.
“I don’t think this (lawsuit) is going to change their outlook on some of these claims,” Glynn said.
And there isn’t a guarantee that lawsuits like the one Fort Worth is set to embark on will garner a large payout. One manufacturer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May as a result of the myriad lawsuits around the firefighting foam. Kidde-Fenwal Inc, which specializes in fire control systems, said in a court filing that its likely legal liability exceeds what it is able to pay.
Prior to the publication of the legal notice, Harder said there’s a chance that costs of PFAS cleanup are “100 times” a company’s market value. That will spell the end of payouts for liability claims, Harder said.
“At that point, who’s going to pay for it?” he said.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.