The chemical and manufacturing giant 3M reached a $10.3 billion settlement on Thursday with U.S. cities and towns over their claims that the company contaminated drinking water with so-called forever chemicals used in everything from firefighting foam to nonstick coatings.
Under the sweeping settlement, 3M said it would pay out the money over 13 years to any cities, counties and others across the country to test for and clean up perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, in public water supplies.
3M, which is facing about 4,000 lawsuits by states and municipalities for PFAS contamination, did not admit any liability. The company said the settlement covered remediation to water suppliers that detected the chemical “at any level or may do so in the future.”
In a statement, Mike Roman, the chairman and chief executive of 3M, called the agreement “an important step forward for 3M” and said it built on “our announcement that we will exit all PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025.”
The settlement, which requires court approval, would put an end to legal claims including a test case brought by the City of Stuart, Fla., that had been scheduled for a trial before a federal judge on June 5. Mike Mortell, the city manager of Stuart, said the community was “grateful” that the settlement had been reached.
The deal followed a similar agreement with Chemours, DuPont and Corteva, which agreed on June 2 to pay $1.19 billion into a fund that will be used to remove PFAS from public drinking water systems.
PFAS have been linked to liver damage, developmental issues, reduced immune function and cancer, and are referred to as forever chemicals because of how persistently they remain in the human body and the environment. They have also been detected in hundreds of wild animal species around the world.
The synthetic chemicals are so ubiquitous that nearly all Americans, including newborns, carry PFAS in their bloodstream, and as many as 200 million Americans are exposed to PFAS through their tap water, according to a peer-reviewed 2020 study.
Hundreds of communities across the country have sued 3M and other PFAS manufacturers, claiming that their soil and water were contaminated by the chemicals, which are also used in food packaging and a wide variety of other products to make them resistant to heat, water, oil and corrosion.
In one of those suits, the City of Stuart sued 3M and several other companies in federal court, claiming that its water supply had been contaminated by firefighting foam containing PFAS — used for decades in training exercises by the city’s Fire Department.
But as 3M and the plaintiffs closed in on a settlement, they asked a federal judge in South Carolina to delay the trial so they could try to reach a deal instead. The judge gave the parties up to 21 days to reach a deal.
While the settlement will go far in helping cities and towns address PFAS water contamination, local taxpayers will still be left footing much of the bills for cleanup, Mr. Mortell, who was previously Stuart’s city attorney, said in an earlier interview.
He noted that in 2016, Stuart closed and replaced wells that were contaminating the local water supply but was still incurring cleanup costs. The city had estimated the damages and cleanup costs for Stuart alone at $100 million to $120 million, he said.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get close to that much net to the city, so I think there is no making us whole,” Mr. Mortell said.
Brunswick County, N.C., spent nearly $1 billion after extensive PFAS contamination was found in the Cape Fear watershed, and was still incurring about $2.9 million annually in expenses, a 2021 study found. Orange County, Calif., has also estimated that infrastructure needed to lower the levels of PFAS in its drinking water could cost $1 billion.
In addition to approval by the federal judge in South Carolina, who is overseeing the so-called multidistrict litigation, the settlement needs the plaintiffs to sign on. The judge must also approve the reasonableness of any fee request from the dozens of law firms representing plaintiffs in the litigation. It is not uncommon for plaintiffs’ lawyers to take home as much as 30 percent of any settlement.
3M said in a statement that it would continue to address other PFAS litigation “by defending itself in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate.”
Researchers have sought to put a dollar value on the health harms from PFAS in the United States: A 2022 study found the costs of treating diseases attributable to PFAS exposure to be as much as $62.6 billion. And when the country proposed a rule last year to strengthen drinking water standards for PFAS, the Environmental Protection Agency calculated an annual benefit of $533 million in improved cardiovascular health, $300 million in reduced renal cell carcinoma and $178 million from the reduction of low birth-weight births across the United States.
Analysts at Morningstar, a research firm, estimate that 3M’s total liabilities related to PFAS could grow to as much as $30 billion as state, foreign and personal injury claims are factored in.
PFAS cleanup efforts have taken on more urgency since the E.P.A. said the government would for the first time propose regulation to require near-zero levels of the chemicals in drinking water, after determining that almost no amount of exposure is safe.
Some industry groups said the Biden administration had created an impossible standard that would cost manufacturers and municipal water agencies billions of dollars. Industries would have to stop discharging the chemicals into waterways, and water utilities would have to test for the PFAS chemicals and remove them. Communities with limited resources will be hardest hit by the new rule, they warned.
Matthew Goldstein contributed reporting.