Timing is everything. And Bucks County officials said the time is now to sue a long list of companies that manufactured firefighting foam that contained PFAS.
Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub, Commissioners Chairman Bob Harvie, and county Solicitor Joe Khan recently announced the county filed a lawsuit against various companies that manufactured the firefighting chemicals. The suit, filed in Bucks County Common Pleas Court, seeks civil fines, penalties, and restoration under the state’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.
Those chemicals have polluted water and soil in Bucks County, the officials said.
“We’re bringing this action on a unified, bipartisan basis because as your elected officials, we have a duty to protect the people of Bucks County and to conserve and maintain the county’s natural resources,” said Harvie.
“Regardless of our differences, we all inhabit one planet, and that one planet has one environment and that environment is what sustains all of us,” said Harvie. “The desire to protect our environment is what unites us as Bucks County public servants.”
“These companies knew or should have known their products were toxic,” said Khan.
The suit alleges that PFAS were released into soil and water when firefighting foam products and chemicals contained therein, manufactured and sold by the suit’s defendants, were used in Bucks County. Because those substances do not biodegrade, PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals.”
Although the companies named as defendants largely stopped producing the PFAS-containing aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) products, recent testing at the county’s Public Safety Training Center in Doylestown Township confirmed the presence of PFAS in water and soil samples. It has been at least 10 years since those chemicals were used at the training center.
PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are known as forever chemicals because they do not break down in the environment. They appeared commonly in many nonstick, stain-resistant, and waterproof products, including the AFFF products used to fight fuel fires. PFAS are highly water-soluble, which causes the chemicals to spread easily and contaminate soil, groundwater, and surface water.
Testing of fish tissue samples last year also showed the continued presence of PFAS in Neshaminy Creek, causing the state Departments of Health, Agriculture, and Environmental Protection to issue a “Do Not Eat” advisory for all species of fish caught in the Neshaminy Creek basin.
“You literally cannot eat the fish you catch,” said Weintraub.
Certain PFAS can cause adverse health effects including, but not limited to, decreased fertility and increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects or delays in children, increased risk of certain cancers, and increased risk of high cholesterol and obesity, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Health advisory levels of PFAS in water have long remained at 70 parts per trillion, but the state Department of Environmental Protection seeks to significantly reduce those levels. The public has until April 27 to comment on the state’s most recent proposal.
“While we will continue to investigate and study the health effects of these harmful chemicals, the time to hold these companies accountable is now. They knew that their firefighting foam products contained these toxic substances when they peddled them and that they were dangerous even when used properly,” Harvie said.
“These companies interfered with our rights to public health, safety and peace, and the right to pure water and to the preservation of the natural environment,” said Weintraub. “As district attorney, I am dedicated to protecting the county and its residents from the deceptive and unfair acts and practices of the manufacturers of PFAS in connection with their marketing and sale of products containing these undisclosed ‘forever chemicals’ to entities throughout the county.”
“The health and safety of the citizens of Bucks County is our top concern,” he said.
Asked about why the suit was being filed now, Weintraub said officials had been investigating the matter and reviewing the law for the last two years.
“There is an old Israeli proverb. The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago, but the second-best time to plant a tree is today,” said Weintraub.
Khan said, “This lawsuit is about more than the county’s substantial rights as a property owner. This is about enforcing the people’s constitutional right to pure water. These corporations need to pay for their outrageous misconduct and this lawsuit will help make sure that they do.”
“Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that guarantees a right to pure water,” said Khan.
Bucks County and the Bucks County District Attorney’s office are represented by attorneys from Baron & Budd, P.C., Cossich Sumich Parsiola & Taylor, LLC, and Dilworth Paxson LLP.
Grant Thompson, a spokesman for 3M, one of the defendant companies, said, “3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS, including AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam), and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship.”