3M Co. has offically moved to settle claims of fouled drinking water stemming from the use of so-called “forever chemicals,” striking a deal with U.S. public water systems that could total $10.5 billion to $12.5 billion over 13 years, it said in a June 22 federal filing. 

Pending court approval, the agreement calls for the firm to provide funds to test for and treat contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The funding will be made available to eligible public water suppliers that have detected PFAS in drinking water, as well as those that may detect the chemicals—which have been widely used in consumer goods, firefighting foam and industrial applications—at any level in the future.

The final amount will be based on how much PFAS is detected in water systems not yet tested, with funding to be allocated first to as many as 5,000 systems that have already detected the contaminants, and then to others that will test in the future, according to plaintiffs' attorney Scott Summy.

3M's agreement also applies to hundreds of claims against the company brought by utilities claiming soil and groundwater contamination from PFAS-containing aqueous film forming foam, consolidated into multidistrict litigation being overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston, S.C. 

"This is an important step forward for 3M, which builds on our actions that include our announced exit of PFOA and PFOS manufacturing more than 20 years ago, our more recent investments in state-of-the-art water filtration technology in our chemical manufacturing operations, and our announcement that we will exit all PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025,” said firm Chairman and CEO Mike Roman.

Talks Were Underway

Settlement negotiations between 3M and the utilities were reportedly underway in early June when DuPont and its two PFAS-manufacturing spin-offs reached a $1.19-billion settlement with water utilities. That led Judge Gergel to postpone the scheduled June 5 trial start for the city of Stuart, Fla.’s $100-million lawsuit against 3M—considered a test case for the multidistrict litigation—as officials seek to recover funds already spent to treat city water, those for future water-filtration investment and punitive damages. 

Since discovering high PFAS levels in its system in 2016 from firefighting foam stored at a city facility nearby, officials replaced three of 24 drinking water wells and installed an ion-exchange treatment system. When completed in 2019, it was the first project of its kind permitted and built in Florida and the largest (up to 8-mgd treatment capacity) in the U.S. placed into operation, according to system design firm Kimley-Horn. The system removes PFAS and other emerging contaminants to less than 10 parts per trillion, which it says is non-detect level. 

But in addition to treatment construction, operating costs are estimated to be at least $2 million per year and set to rise, says a report in Grist. The city also is set to complete in November, and operate by February, an $18.3-million reverse-osmosis treatment facility at its water plant.

City officials have not disclosed Stuart’s share of the settlement. but city manager Mike Mortell told local publication TC Palm it was "fair and equitable." 

In late May, 3M also joined Dupont and other chemical manufacturers in agreeing to pay the city of Rome, Ga., more than $100 million to remediate drinking water contamination resulting from PFAS stain-proofing agents used in locally produced carpeting. That settlement involved separate litigation in a Georgia superior court.

But 3M said the agreement with water utilities is not an admission of liability, and that it would continue fighting the litigation should the deal be rejected or if certain conditions are not fulfilled. 

The agreement does not cover lawsuits that have been brought over the past year by several state attorneys general accusing 3M and other PFAS manufacturers of contributing to soil and groundwater contamination while willfully concealing evidence of the substances’ toxicity. It also does not cover individual claims.