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Maine attorney general files suit against 'forever chemical' manufacturers

In this Dec. 9, 2015, file photo, the company name of Dupont appears above its trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Richard Drew
AP file
In this Dec. 9, 2015, file photo, the company name of Dupont appears above its trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

The state of Maine is suing several chemical manufacturers over contamination with the "forever chemicals" known as PFAS.

Attorney General Aaron Frey announced Wednesday that his office filed two lawsuits against DuPont, 3M and other companies seeking financial damages that will cover the cost of investigating, cleaning up and monitoring PFAS contamination. Maine is the latest state to pursue the companies in court as concerns grow about the health effects of chemicals that were used for decades in countless consumer products, including nonstick cookware, water- and stain-repellent fabrics, grease-resistant food packaging and firefighting foams.

Frey's office filed two lawsuits in Cumberland County Superior Court, one targeting PFAS manufacturers and another against those chemical makers as well as companies that produced firefighting foams that used PFAS.

"3M and DuPont knew for decades that PFOA and PFOS in particular were toxic and posted substantial health and environmental risks, but they covered up this information and instead promoted these chemical products as safe and appropriate for widespread use," reads one lawsuit.

PFOA and PFOS are two types of the chemical class that are no longer used in U.S. manufacturing but that do not readily break down in the body or the environment, hence the nickname "forever chemicals."

“The defendant manufacturers have willfully introduced toxic chemicals into Maine’s environment in pursuit of profit for shareholders,” Frey said in a statement. “Maine citizens and the state are left to manage the harm these chemicals cause in our natural resources, our animals, our food, and our bodies, and the state is working overtime to manage the fallout. PFAS manufacturers must account for the environmental, health and economic damage caused by their actions.”

The state is in the middle of a multi-year investigation of PFAS contamination tied to sludge or industrial byproducts that were spread on farmers' fields as fertilizer. More than 50 contaminated farms have been identified so far, along with hundreds of private residential wells often located near fields where contaminated sludge was spread. Some of those farms have now shut down and the state, which licensed the sludge-spreading program, has set aside more than $100 million for PFAS investigations and response.

Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are a class of thousands of chemicals that are often used as coatings in a wide variety of products. They became popular decades ago in such major-label products as Teflon, which was produced by DuPont, and 3M's Scotchgard coatings used in carpets, upholster and other fabrics.

But a growing body of scientific research has linked some varieties of PFAS to a host of health problems, including cancer, kidney disease, high cholesterol, low birth weight and reduced vaccine response in children. In response, Maine and many states have set strict standards for PFAS in drinking water or put in place other regulations in the absence of federal action on PFAS.

In addition to the lawsuit filed by the Maine attorney general's office, there are also at least two class-action lawsuits filed against PFAS manufacturers by homeowners and other plaintiffs in Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills supports the lawsuits filed by Frey’s office.

“My administration, working closely with the Legislature, has spearheaded one of the strongest efforts in the nation to address PFAS, but more work remains — particularly holding accountable the large manufacturers responsible for this serious problem,” Mills said in a statement. “Evidence indicates that, for many years, DuPont, 3M and the other defendant manufacturers knew that PFAS posed serious risks to human health and the environment but hid that knowledge from the public while they lined their pockets at our expense. We will defend the people of Maine in the face of this recklessness.”

Representatives for two of the companies named in the lawsuit as well as the chemical industry defended their practices or sought to put distance between themselves and PFAS.

“3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS - including AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) - and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship,” 3M’s corporate communications office, based in Minnesota, said in a statement. “AFFF was a critical tool developed to serve an important need for military service members and other responders facing potentially high hazard, life-threatening challenges. 3M will continue to remediate PFAS and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate.”

The company DuPont has gone through multiple corporate changes in recent years that have seen many of its various divisions, including chemical businesses, spun off into different entities. One of those is Chemours Company, which has manufactured PFAS and is also named as one of the plaintiffs in the state’s lawsuit. Dan Turner, a spokesman for DuPont de Nemours, said the company “has never manufactured PFOA, PFOS or firefighting foam.”

“While we don’t comment on litigation matters, we believe these complaints are without merit, and we look forward to vigorously defending our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship,” Turner said in a statement.

But Sarah Woodbury, advocacy director for the Maine-based Defend Our Health group that has been calling for greater regulation of PFAS in Maine and nationally, cheered the long-anticipated legal filings against the companies and echoed claims by the Attorney General’s office that manufacturers knew about the health hazards of PFAS for years but continued to use them widely in products.

“Considering what the state of Maine has been dealing with, it’s about time that the people that are responsible for the contamination are actually held accountable for the kind of mess that was left behind,” Woodbury said. “So we are grateful that the AG’s office and the governor are moving forward on this.”