Columbia, Lexington decline millions of dollars to clean up drinking water. Here’s why

The city of Columbia will decline an estimated $12 million to scrub toxic forever chemicals from its drinking water, saying the money offered in a major legal settlement isn’t nearly enough to do the job.

Instead, the city is considering filing its own lawsuit to gain funds from makers of forever chemicals that are liable for toxins now showing up in drinking water supplies across the country.

Columbia says it could cost $150 million to $200 million to upgrade its drinking water system to filter out forever chemicals, not including millions of dollars in additional annual operating expenses.

Earlier this year, lawyers suing major makers and suppliers of forever chemicals — 3M, DuPont and companies related to DuPont — reached class action settlement agreements with the chemical giants totaling more than $11 billion. The money would go to drinking water systems across the country. The companies individually agreed to provide the settlement money after scores of lawsuits were filed.

Forever chemicals have a variety of toxic effects on people, including certain types of cancers, thyroid conditions and high cholesterol.

“This is a legal step the city is taking on the advice of counsel to take us out of the class settlement, to allow us to seek a better judgment for the city of Columbia,’’ Councilman Howard Duvall said after the council voted not to accept the settlement funds.

Columbia took action because the deadline is nearing for drinking water systems to decide whether to take settlement funds that could be used to filter out the pollution.

Deciding not to accept the settlement money carries risk. Columbia would have to raise water rates substantially to cover the costs of upgrading its water plant, if money from other sources is not available.

Columbia and other cities that choose not to take the settlement money may get nothing to clean up their water later. If DuPont or 3M, for instance, were to go out of business, there would not be money in the future. It also could take years for those cities to obtain funds through their own lawsuits, if the suits were successful.

Unlike Columbia, the city of Cayce plans to take the settlement money, according to a statement Tuesday.

Cayce, whose system is substantially smaller than Columbia’s, did not provide a figure on how much it would receive in the settlements. But Cayce officials said the 3M and DuPont settlements “are an opportunity to collect money in the near future to the benefit of Cayce and its citizens, without the uncertainty and delay that comes from opting out of either settlement.”

The city of Columbia’s decision to reject the settlement money reflects the thinking of many other local governments that provide water across the country.

Earlier this month, 22 governments and water districts across the country raised objections in federal court, saying the settlements aren’t adequate to cover the costs of cleaning up water, and that the settlements shield 3M and the DuPont companies from further liability.

In the Columbia area, the town of Lexington and the Lexington Joint Municipal Water and Sewer Commission are among those that also have decided against taking the money, officials said.

Those governments provide customers with water that originates from West Columbia’s water plant, one of the area’s largest systems. The West Columbia City Council has not voted on whether to opt out of the settlement, a spokesperson said Tuesday.

The Lexington Town Council voted against the settlement money Monday night after determining it would be no more than a few million dollars, Mayor Steve MacDougall said. Not only was the money not enough, but accepting the funds would tie Lexington’s hands from taking its own legal action if that is necessary to recover more funds from the manufacturers, he said.

Statewide, more than 50 utilities — including Columbia and West Columbia — have at one point registered forever chemicals above a proposed new federal limit on forever chemicals in drinking water, state Department of Health and Environmental Control records show.

Separately, attorneys general in some states have taken their own action against manufacturers of forever chemicals, including S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

According to the resolution approved Monday by the Columbia City Council, the legal settlement for Columbia ‘’is not in its best interests.’’ The resolution empowers City Manager Teresa Wilson to opt out of the settlement.

Clint Shealy, an assistant city manager over Columbia’s utilities, said the city estimated it would receive about $12 million from the settlement, based on the level of forever chemicals in its water and other factors.

The city will be out of compliance with a new federal drinking water standard of 4 parts per trillion for certain forever chemicals, if the federal standard takes effect as proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“The class action lawsuit does not give us the highest chance in reclaiming as much of the investment needed as possible,’’ Shealy said, noting that the estimated amount “was woefully low.’’

Duvall told The State that it’s possible the EPA’s proposed new standard will be raised from 4 parts per trillion to a higher level, which would put Columbia in compliance. Levels in the city’s drinking water are slightly higher than the proposed standard of 4.

Duvall said the city also doesn’t want to limit itself legally, if more money is needed. Lawyers advising the city have told Columbia “to pursue a legal course of our own, or with like-minded utilities,’’ Duvall said.

Forever chemicals have been widely used in foam developed to put out fires and in coatings for non-stick frying pans, stain-resistant carpet and water resistant clothing. The toxic compounds were developed in the 1940s and used for decades. But for years, 3M and DuPont did not provide information about the hazards, despite knowing about the toxicity, according to multiple media outlets.

Forever chemicals are formally known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, but received the name forever chemicals because they can linger for decades in the environment.

The 22 governments and agencies known to have filed objections across the country to the DuPont and 3M settlements said the deals could release the companies from too much liability, while not fully covering clean up costs, Reuters reported Nov. 13.

“The funds proposed are grossly inadequate,’’ according to comments from Dallas, Texas, in the Reuters story. The story also said an attorney who negotiated the settlement said he took objections seriously, but he believes many concerns have already been resolved.