PROVIDENCE — Major chemical companies have violated state environmental and consumer protection laws, knowingly allowing “forever chemicals” to contaminate the state’s drinking water and numerous natural resources, alleges Attorney General Peter F. Neronha in a new lawsuit.
Neronha on Thursday filed filed a suit against the manufacturers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are more commonly known as PFAS, for allegedly causing significant harm to the residents and natural resources of Rhode Island. The suit also alleges that the companies engaged in a “massive and widespread campaign to knowingly deceive the public,” move assets to avoid paying for the damages they caused, and continue to manufacture, market, and sell these hazardous chemicals while knowing the risks.
In the process, the many companies identified in the suit, which include 3M and DuPont, reaped “an enormous profit,” said Neronha.
PFAS are widely used in consumer products such as food packaging, cookware, clothing, carpets, shoes, fabrics, waxes, paints, and cleaning products. They have also been identified in firefighting foams that are designed to quickly smother liquid fuel fires. PFAS are commonly called “forever chemicals” because they resist degradation, persist in soil, and are known to leach into groundwater.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 12,000 PFAS compounds and has concluded that the exposure to PFAS may lead to significant negative health effects, including decreased fertility, developmental effects or delays in children, accelerated puberty, bone variations, behavioral changes, and increased risk of certain cancers, among many other issues.
In New England, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey filed a similar suit earlier this year. Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey, who previously served as the state’s attorney general, filed a suit against manufacturers of toxic PFAS chemicals in May 2022.
In a statement to the Globe on Thursday, Dupont spokesman Daniel Turner said the company has “never” manufactured PFAS, firefighting foam, or perfluorooctanoic acid.
“While we don’t comment on litigation matters, we believe this complaint is without merit, and we look forward to vigorously defending our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship,” said Turner.
A spokesperson for 3M could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
Neronha’s complaint, which was filed in Providence County Superior Court, alleged that PFAS chemicals “have contaminated and will continue to contaminate many public water supplies” in Rhode Island. Tests conducted by the state health and environmental management departments and research by Brown University detected significantly elevated concentrations of PFAS chemicals in “numerous public water systems and many private wells,” the complaint said.
Terry Gray, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said monitoring the pervasiveness of PFAS “is one of DEM’s most pressing challenges.”
“PFAS science is incredibly complex and emerging rapidly but there is no disputing PFAS’ prevalence in the environment or the harm they cause,” said Gray.
The companies, court documents allege, “concealed from the public, regulators, and consumers the dangers” posted by PFAS. “Now their chemicals have infiltrated virtually everywhere from our waterways to our bloodstreams,” said Neronha.
Neronha said that addressing PFAS contamination caused by the companies named in the suit will require “massive effort and expense” to investigate, treat, and remediate. Brian Hodge, a spokesman in the attorney general’s office, said the full extent of this work is still being evaluated.
In the suit, Neronha is seeking damages from the companies to cover the costs of mitigation and remediation of PFAS contamination, in addition to punitive damages and disgorgement of profits.
“We are still uncovering the consequences of exposure to these hazardous chemicals by Rhode Islanders, but the burden of this enormous cost should be borne by the companies who made, marketed, and sold these products at great profit, while hiding their true dangers,” said Neronha on Thursday.
His office said there is likely contamination from numerous military installations, firefighting training sites, and industrial sites like the Naval Station in Newport, Camp Fogarty, Quonset Point, and the Bradford Dyeing Association site in Westerly.
The Rhode Island General Assembly has passed multiple laws and regulations related to drinking water standards, including the prohibition of food packaging containing PFAS, and monitoring of groundwater and discharge.
In a joint statement, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio applauded the attorney general’s suit, calling it “bold action.”
State legislators are also considering at least six new bills that could prohibit or restrict the use of these chemicals. These laws, in addition to federal regulations, underscore the risk these chemicals present to human health and the environment, Neronha said.
“The public is going to face significant costs and damages as a result of these more stringent standards, and the state’s claims are designed to make certain that it is the parties that created this crisis and contaminated Rhode Island’s waters pay to clean it up,” said Neronha.
“They have broken the law and harmed the people and natural resources of Rhode Island,” added Neronha. “We intend to hold them accountable for that.”
At least 19 companies are named as defendants in the complaint. They include 3M Company; Buckeye Fire Equipment Company; Chemguard Inc.; National Foam, Inc.; Tyco Fire Products LP; AGC Chemicals Americas, Inc.; Amerex Corporation; Archroma U.S. Inc.; Arkema, Inc.; ChemDesign Products, Inc.; Clariant Corporation; EIDP (Old DuPont); The Chemours Company; BASF Corporation; Carrier Fire & Security Americas Corporation; Carrier Global Corporation; Corteva Inc.; DuPont de Nemours Inc.; Kidde PLC, Inc.; and doe defendants.
This story has been updated to include comments from a Dupont spokesman.