CONCORD — The state of New Hampshire is taking some of the biggest chemical companies in the world to court, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up groundwater and other forms of contamination from a group of highly toxic chemicals used in everything from firefighting foam to Teflon pans.
Gov. Chris Sununu and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald on Wednesday announced lawsuits against the companies, all of which are involved in the manufacture and distribution of chemicals known as PFAS (polyfluroalkyl substances)
Two lawsuits have been filed in Hillsborough County Superior Court North against 3M, DuPont, the Chemours Company, Chemguard, Tyco Fire Products, Buckeye Fire Equipment, Kidde-Fenwal and National Foam, Inc.
Three of the companies are named in both lawsuits — 3M, DuPont and Chemours, a spin-off from DuPont. The suits allege that despite their unique knowledge of the dangers of these chemicals, the companies continued to make and sell them without warning the public of their health risks.
The lawsuits seek damages for contamination of the state’s natural resources and will seek to recover costs related to the investigation, cleanup and other forms of response to contamination.
MacDonald said the scope of the lawsuit and the relief the state is seeking could match or exceed the $236 million jury verdict awarded the state in 2013 in a lawsuit against Exxonmobile for groundwater contamination caused by the gasoline additive MTBE.
By the time appeals were exhausted, the principle and interest owed the state had grown to $300 million.
Most of that money went into a dedicated drinking water and groundwater trust fund to pay for remediation projects across the state.
As with that case, the state will be using outside attorneys with expertise in lawsuits against major corporations over environmental contamination.
Sununu described the action as one of the most significant lawsuits the state has ever undertaken.
“We are confident this lawsuit will be a success and that it will provide proper assistance to the state and our communities,” said Sununu. “And as we move forward with this lawsuit we will continue to investigate strengthening our state’s drinking water standards, which have yet to be finalized.”
The state Department of Environmental Services is currently reviewing proposals to lower the acceptable level of PFAS in New Hampshire water supplies, as a result a bill sponsored by former state Rep. Mindi Messmer of Rye.
“We are only beginning to understand the magnitude and scope of this contamination in our beautiful state,” Messmer said.
“While this (lawsuit) is a step in the right direction, we must not get distracted from the immediate need to protect our citizens from unsafe drinking water by continuing to identify sources and continuing to push for stricter, enforceable drinking water standards.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), New Hampshire has the highest rates of breast, bladder, esophageal and pediatric cancer in the nation.
PFAS contamination has been found in groundwater supplies in several communities throughout the state, including Portsmouth, Bedford, Merrimack and Manchester.
There is no dollar amount cited in the lawsuits, which could stretch on for years. The Exxonmobile case, first filed in 2003, took 10 years to come to trial.
“We are among the first, if not the first, in bringing these actions,” said MacDonald.
PFAS is short for perfluoroalky and polyfluoroalkyl substances and includes chemicals known as PFOS and PFOA.
They are called “forever chemicals” because they never fully break down, according to the Conservation Law Foundation.
PFAS has been widely used in nonstick cookware, food wrappers, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, some firefighting foams, and products that resist grease, water, and oil.
State environmental officials have identified PFAS contamination at the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, the Coakley Landfill in North Hampton and near industrial sites in Bedford, Merrimack, Manchester, Stratham, Kingston, East Kingston and Brentwood
More than 750 properties in southern New Hampshire have been transferred from private wells to public water at great expense, with more than 100,000 people statewide affected by some form of PFAS contamination, according to DES estimates.
“That’s not to say overall that the drinking water of New Hampshire is not safe,” said Sununu. “We’re moving this (lawsuit) forward for the treatment we provide for these water systems, ensuring that every time you turn on the faucet that you can confidently hand a glass of water to your kids.”
Representatives for DuPont and 3M said they would fight the lawsuit aggressively.
“While we do not comment on pending litigation, we will vigorously defend our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship,” said Dan Turner, with DuPont corporate communications.
Fanna Haile-Selassie, external communications manager with 3M, said” “3M cares deeply about the safety and health of New Hampshire’s communities. 3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend its environmental stewardship.”