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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane joins PFAS lawsuit against chemical manufacturers

3M’s Cordova chemical plant on the Mississippi River in Illinois upstream from the Quad Cities on Dec. 7, 2022. The company dumps highly toxic PFAS chemicals into the river.  (E. Jason Wambsgans)

Amid increased scrutiny on PFAS levels in city drinking water, Spokane is joining a lawsuit against the companies that manufacture the dangerous chemical.

Hundreds of lawsuits by municipalities across the country have been grouped together under a federal judge in South Carolina. This larger lawsuit the city joins accuses major chemical manufacturers like 3M and DuPont of selling PFAS-laced products while covering up their danger.

Known as “forever chemicals,” perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, abbreviated PFAS, are a set of human-made chemicals used in thousands of products over the decades. High levels of them have since been linked to cancers, heart disease, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, low birth weight and other diseases.

In suing these large companies, the city hopes to reach a settlement that can assist those who may have been harmed by PFAS exposure.

“Protecting the health and safety of Spokane’s residents is our top priority. By taking legal action against these manufacturers, we are holding accountable those responsible for polluting our drinking water,” Mayor Lisa Brown said in a statement.

Following state regulations implemented in 2022, Spokane’s public water system began testing for several types of PFAS last year and detected two forms of the chemical.

City Public Works director Marlene Feist said the lawsuit shows how the city will “ensure clean and safe water for Spokane customers.”

“The people of Spokane deserve nothing less than access to safe and reliable drinking water, and we will continue to work tirelessly on their behalf,” she said.

Originating from firefighting foam runoff at the Spokane International Airport and nearby Fairchild Air Force Base, communities in the West Plains found high levels of PFAS in their groundwater.

Although much lower than levels in the West Plains, the 2023 testing in Spokane found 2.75 parts per trillion of PFOA, which is perfluorooctanoic acid, and 4.44 parts per trillion of PFOS, which is perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, in the Ray Street well at Ray Street and Hartson Avenue. Approximately 2 parts per trillion of PFOS were also found in the Grace Avenue wells, which are southeast of North Foothills Drive and Nevada Street.

While under state limits at the time, the reading of PFOS at the Ray Street well places it at least slightly over the new 4 parts per trillion federal limit for both PFOA and PFOS, which was announced last week.

According to Public Works spokesperson Kirstin Davis, the lawsuit was not a reaction to the new federal regulations and had been planned before they were announced. Asked if the strict federal limit strengthens the hand of Spokane in negotiating a lawsuit settlement, she said it is “hard to say.” In its announcement of the lawsuit, the city states any funds from a settlement will be used to “reinvest in the City’s health and safety.”

The original South Carolina lawsuit is focused only on aqueous film-forming foam, a firefighting product produced with PFAS chemicals. According to city spokesperson Erin Hut, Spokane’s lawsuit has a wider focus because it is unclear if contamination comes from firefighting foam or other sources.

The initial lawsuit claims these manufacturing companies were aware of the danger of PFAS for decades and actively tried to hide that knowledge from the public. According to the lawsuit, a 1978 internal report manufacturer 3M found that PFOS and PFOA are “likely to persist in the environment for extended periods” and “should be regarded as toxic.” The report also “urgently recommended” that exposure of employees to these compounds is limited.

In a statement on its company website, 3M states it is “committed to continuing to work collaboratively to find new and better ways to use science and technology to answer these questions” concerning PFAS.