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3M reaches $10.3 billion settlement over 'forever chemicals' in public water systems


3M has reached a settlement over what have been called forever chemicals. The chemical manufacturer has agreed to pay at least $10.3 billion to settle lawsuits over potentially harmful compounds that don't degrade easily. 3M is a leading maker of PFAS - chemicals that have contaminated many of the nation's public drinking water systems, in part because of things like firefighting foam.

SCOTT SUMMY: They sold it to airports and fire training facilities across the country, and they told them that they needed to be training with it. And they did. And they trained with it monthly. They would set something intentionally on fire and then use the foam to put it out. And because these chemicals literally live forever and do not break down, those compounds get into the ground and into the groundwater.

ELLIOTT: Scott Summy is one of the attorneys representing the water systems that sued 3M and other manufacturers. I asked him how his clients have reacted to this settlement.

SUMMY: So the water systems that I represent are located across the country. They serve public drinking water. But unfortunately, like many public water systems across the country, they are facing PFAS in the drinking water. And they've been very concerned about it because the EPA has put out proposed drinking water standards that will take effect in several years. And the way to comply with them is these water systems have to install expensive water treatment in order to remove the chemicals before the water is served to the public. So upon hearing about this settlement, obviously the clients are very happy because they've been very concerned about how they're going to fund this treatment. And this settlement being the largest drinking water settlement in American history will go a long way in helping them fund that treatment.

ELLIOTT: So PFAS have been linked to health problems ranging from liver damage to some cancers. Do you think this settlement goes far enough? Is it going to be enough money to fix the problem?

SUMMY: Obviously, to remove PFAS from public water systems across the country is an enormously expensive endeavor. Unfortunately for 3M, they are the largest market participant among all the manufacturers. But the problem is, is that their market cap is only about 55 billion and this settlement will have them pay up to 12.5 billion. And so this is a huge chunk. It's obviously a compromise. But for our clients, it's - you know, it's better than the alternative of trying to chase them for the next 10 years in a courtroom.

ELLIOTT: You know, is there a tradeoff there, though? Scientists are finding these chemicals everywhere now - in food, in wildlife, in humans. A trial would have brought kind of greater awareness to the problem.

SUMMY: Yes, but trials are expensive. They're risky. And, you know, for my clients - they're not - you know, the cities and towns across America - they're not in the business of litigating. They are in the business of running their towns and serving water. And they really just wanted to find a way to get assistance in getting them treatment for their drinking water. Now, don't forget, in the multidistrict litigation where all these cases were pending, there are many, many, many cases left. There are thousands of personal injury cases. There are attorney general suits. There are property damage cases. So there very well may be trials coming.

ELLIOTT: So this is just the beginning.

SUMMY: This is the beginning.

ELLIOTT: Attorney Scott Summy. His clients won a $10 billion settlement agreement from 3M over drinking water contamination involving the chemicals PFAS.

SUMMY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.