North Carolina’s PFAS Lawsuit Sheds Light on Growing Problems

North Carolina’s PFAS Lawsuit Sheds Light on Growing Problems

Maybe you’ve ran across headlines on North Carolina’s PFAS lawsuit. Or maybe you saw Dark Waters and wondered if you had something to worry about. But with everything going on—COVID, politics, virtual school, and everything else—you probably don’t have time to read a 58-page complaint or even lengthy articles about chemicals, pollution and lawsuits.

But you’re still probably asking yourself: Do I have something to worry about? Let’s try to answer that question in under 1,000 words instead of 58 pages.

AG Stein filed North Carolina’s PFAS lawsuit against DuPont and Chemours earlier this month.

On Oct. 13, NC Attorney General Josh Stein filed a lawsuit in Cumberland County against DuPont, Chemours, and several related business entities. In the suit, AG Stein accuses the companies of “severely contaminat[ing] North Carolina’s environment, causing extensive harm to our State’s natural resources and creating significant risks for the people of the State.”

“Through the Defendants’ operations at their Fayetteville Works facility located in Bladen County and Cumberland County,” the complaint alleges, “they have contaminated the land, air, and water around that site, as well as the Cape Fear River Watershed, with chemicals known to pose significant risks to human health and the environment.”

Exposure to PFAS can cause serious illnesses, and North Carolinians likely had exposure all the way to the coast.

Specifically, the suit takes issue with the companies’ alleged discharge of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS. As the complaint explains, these chemicals are “forever chemicals.” This means that they generally resist biodegradation, persist in the environment and accumulate in humans and other living things.

Experts link PFAS exposure to several diseases. Specifically, they link exposure to kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, liver damage, decreased fertility, pregnancy-induced hypertension, increased risk of asthma, and more.

Although you can be exposed to PFAS in a variety of ways, the easiest is through drinking contaminated water.

The harms from PFAS contamination at the defendants’ hands have been felt throughout the Cape Fear Watershed. In fact, even North Carolinians on the east coast — nearly 100 miles away from Fayetteville Works — are dealing with the contamination. According to the lawsuit, Wilmington residents have blood serum levels of PFAS compounds several times higher than national averages.

AG Stein filed North Carolina's PFAS lawsuit last week.
Image courtesy of MJ Tangonan on Unsplash.

“Not only is there significant PFAS contamination in and around the Fayetteville Works and in the Cape Fear River Watershed,” the complaint continues, “but PFAS compounds have also been widely dispersed by the PFAS Defendants through air emissions from the Fayetteville Works.”

The lawsuit also indicates that “PFAS compounds from the Fayetteville Works have been located in drinking water, groundwater, surface waters, sediments, soils, air, fish, plants, and other natural resources of North Carolina over 100 miles from the Fayetteville Works.”

The companies’ alleged indifference is even more alarming than the hazardous exposure to so many North Carolinians.

“As Old DuPont learned that its conduct was being discovered,” AG Stein alleges, “it worked to shield itself from responsibility for its actions—actions from which it had profited for half a century.” While “continu[ing] to conceal” its actions from North Carolina officials, he claims, DuPont “began a corporate reorganization intended to shield assets from liability.”

North Carolina's PFAS lawsuit showcases importance of checking drinking water.
Image courtesy of Clint McKoy on Unsplash.

The complaint alleges that “Old DuPont’s actions were driven by an overarching intent to maximize its profits and minimize its liabilities—at the expense of the people and natural resources of North Carolina.” “In short,” it says, “Old DuPont cared far more about its own profits than it did about the public health, safety, and environment of North Carolina.”

The lawsuit also asserts that DuPont knew what it was doing the entire time. “Although Old DuPont knew of these dangers for decades,” it claims, “regulatory agencies around the world are only now coming to more fully understand the true nature and dangers….”

Accordingly, AG Stein alleges claims of negligence, trespass, public nuisance, fraud, and several others. The complaint seeks money damages in addition to an order voiding DuPont’s corporate restructuring.

North Carolina’s PFAS lawsuit comes as folks in NC and the US see a power struggle between profits and people.

The North Carolinians worrying about their wellbeing near the Fayetteville Works aren’t the only ones unfortunately. In fact, AG Stein filed the suit just one day after a Bladen County judge entered an addendum to a consent order. That order required Chemours to reduce the amount of PFAS it releases into the Cape Fear River.

But North Carolinians aren’t the only ones dealing with these crises.

In fact, the 2019 film Dark Waters (mentioned above) profiled Rob Bilott. Bilott is a “corporate lawyer-turned-environmental crusader” who transformed his career to take on a fight against DuPont.

North Carolina's PFAS lawsuit sheds light on growing problems.
Image courtesy of Louis Hansel on Unsplash.

Bilott started his legal career as a corporate defense attorney, defending chemical companies just like DuPont. But, in 1998, Wilbur Tennent, a West Virginia farmer, approached Bilott about contamination to his land.

Bilott ended up successfully representing around 70,000 people who lived near the DuPont plant. The plant allegedly contaminated drinking water with a PFAS-related toxic chemical used in the production of Teflon. Bilott won nearly $700 million for West Virginians suffering from kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and other diseases.

And Dupont and PFAS are just an example. Consider the ongoing “Flint Water Crisis,” a crisis that continues in Michigan despite its waning media coverage. There, the government switched the city’s water source to the Flint River. It did so despite the fact that it showed rising levels of PFAS contamination before the switch.

What can you do to keep your family safe?

It is complicated to address issues like PFAS contamination. On the one hand, it’s hard to argue with keeping North Carolinians safe no matter the cost. On the other, we designed the American economy in a way that needs these companies to survive.

The best thing you can do is stay informed. And the North Carolina Department of Environment Quality has numerous resources on its website to help you do that.

Stay up to date with North Carolina legal news in our Law section.