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Wisconsin city files lawsuit against 'forever chemical' makers amid groundwater contamination

MADISON, Wisc. – A central Wisconsin city is suing numerous manufacturers of so-called "forever chemicals," commonly referred to as PFAS, in an attempt to hold them responsible for widespread contamination of the city's drinking water wells.

A lawsuit was filed on behalf of Wausau, Wisconsin, a city of nearly 40,000 residents about 97 miles northwest of Green Bay, against 15 PFAS manufacturers and 61 major insurance players on Thursday, according to a news release from Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg's office. The lawsuit was filed by Napoli Shkolnik, a national law firm specializing in environmental litigation.

The suit stems from the contamination of groundwater by PFAS in the city's water system. According to the release, the city detected PFAS in six of its groundwater wells "as a direct and proximate result of the use of these chemicals by Defendants and other manufacturing companies in the area."

The suit targets companies that manufactured the chemicals – which are used in various industrial and consumer products – for decades without informing customers of the risks. The release states that the defendants had purchased commercial general liability and "excess umbrella insurance policies" to cover liability for the city of Wausau’s injuries caused by using PFAS.

"The people of Wausau trusted that those corporations that earned billions of dollars creating products that were in nearly every household in America were doing so without putting our community’s health and resources at risk," Rosenberg said in the release.

Wausau has one of the most extensive PFAS contaminations in the state, with contamination in all of its drinking water wells. The city is working to install a granulated carbon filtration system, which is the best way to extract PFAS from water.

The city council recently approved borrowing $17.5 million to finance a treatment system that will be installed over the next year. The city also distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars of bottled water and filtration pitchers to residents after the contamination was found in January 2022.

“Local government taxpayers and water district ratepayers should not be responsible for PFAS drinking water contamination," attorney Paul J. Napoli said in the release. "Those responsible, including relevant insurance companies, which have responsibility for public water system contamination should be accountable."

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PFAS lawsuits becoming common in Wisconsin

Wisconsin cities have brought a host of lawsuits against the users and manufacturers of PFAS over the last few years.

In early November, the town of Campbell residents filed a lawsuit against the neighboring city of La Crosse, seeking money for property damage caused by PFAS in private wells and for a medical study on health impacts to residents.

In August, four residents in the town of Stella in Oneida County filed a lawsuit last week against the Ahlstrom-Munksjö Rhinelander paper plant, which they say provided the sludge used for years as cheap fertilizer on potato fields surrounding the municipality. Stella also sued manufacturers of PFAS and PFAS-containing products over contamination in their private wells earlier this year.

In 2021, Tyco Fire Products settled a class action lawsuit brought by hundreds of residents of Peshtigo, where a large contamination stemming from the testing of firefighting foam has fouled wells in the community.

And Dane County brought a lawsuit in 2022, which is being consolidated in a federal court in South Carolina. Some manufacturers have started to draw up settlements in those lawsuits, including 3M, which earlier this summer put forward a $10.3 billion proposal that would be paid out over 13 years to impacted communities.

The state of Wisconsin has also taken action against the company Tyco. State Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit against the company last year, alleging that the company knowingly released PFAS into the environment for years – putting residents in Marinette and Peshtigo at risk.

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About PFAS

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals used for their water and stain-resistant qualities in consumer products such as clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are more than 12,000 types of PFAS. The chemicals are also known as "forever chemicals" because of their persistence in both the environment and the human body, and their potential for toxicity. The chemicals have been linked to human illnesses, including cancers, lower birth weights, harm to immune and reproductive systems, altered hormone regulation, and altered thyroid hormones.

The chemicals enter the human body largely through drinking water. Recent data and studies have shown that PFAS are widespread across the country's drinking water systems.

A USA TODAY analysis in August found that hundreds of community water systems, serving more than 27 million Americans, contain at least one type of PFAS.

Over the past year, states from Rhode Island to California have filed lawsuits against major chemical manufacturers, accusing them of covering up harm caused to the environment and public health by PFAS. In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first federal limits on forever chemicals in drinking water – limiting them to the lowest level that tests can detect.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on X at @SchulteLaura.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin city sues manufacturers of ‘forever chemicals’