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Stuart, Florida’s Battle Against ‘Forever Chemicals’: A Story of Resilience and Hope

The Simple Joy of Refreshing Moments: A Boy and His Water Spigot

In 2016, the serene community of Stuart, Florida faced an alarming revelation that would spark a battle against an invisible threat lurking in their drinking water. Dave Peters, the former public works director and a dedicated water supplier, vividly recalls that fateful Monday evening when their world changed forever.

A phone call at 5:05 p.m. brought a stark warning from a Congressional assistant: Stuart’s water supply was contaminated with alarmingly high levels of PFAS, or per-and-poly-fluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as “forever chemicals.”

The CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) had grim news about PFAS exposure. It linked these substances to various health concerns, including decreased vaccine response in children, elevated cholesterol levels, low birth weights in infants, high blood pressure in pregnant women, and even an increased risk of cancer.

Stuart, a close-knit city with a strong sense of community, was determined to protect its residents from harm. But their struggle was not unique; PFAS had permeated far beyond Stuart, contaminating water supplies nationwide. These persistent compounds, nicknamed “forever chemicals,” had been used since the 1940s in everyday products like nonstick cookware, clothing, carpets, and firefighting foam.

What made PFAS truly insidious was their resilience; they lingered in the environment, infiltrating soil, water, and air over time. Most disturbingly, the ATSDR reported that a significant portion of the U.S. population had PFAS in their bloodstream.

In response to growing concerns, the EPA proposed stringent regulations to limit PFAS levels in drinking water to just four parts per trillion, a stark contrast to higher limits for other contaminants like arsenic and cyanide. However, the cost of implementing these regulations could soar to an estimated $1.2 billion annually, with the burden falling on local water treatment systems.

When Stuart received that crucial call in 2016, the PFAS limit for two specific compounds, PFOA and PFOS, was set at 70 parts per trillion. The city embarked on an arduous journey to reduce these levels significantly below the maximum, utilizing ion exchange technology. Maintaining this system came at a substantial cost, estimated at $2.5 to $3 million yearly, adding up to millions in total expenses.

Stuart’s plight was just one chapter in a national saga to eradicate PFAS from drinking water. The source of contamination hit close to home, as Stuart’s fire department, located near the water treatment plant, had used aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) containing PFAS in their training exercises.

Stuart joined hundreds of communities in legal action against AFFF manufacturers like 3M and DuPont. These conglomerates faced multiple lawsuits, with DuPont recently agreeing to a $1 billion fund for PFAS removal. Stuart’s case focused on 3M’s alleged role in PFAS contamination.

Ned McWilliams, a lawyer involved in the litigation, highlighted the link between 3M and PFAS contamination, emphasizing 3M’s dominant role in PFAS production. In June, 3M announced a settlement of at least $10.3 billion for PFAS remediation, providing funding for water treatment technologies over 13 years.

While the settlement brings resolution for affected communities, McWilliams noted the bittersweet feeling of not being able to fully tell the story of corporate responsibility. Stuart’s involvement in the solution was a source of pride.

A settlement does not imply liability, but McWilliams emphasized that such a substantial payout indicated wrongdoing. The Annals of Global Health revealed industry documents alleging that companies knew about PFAS toxicity as early as 1970 but suppressed unfavorable research. 3M disputed these claims, citing previously published documents.

Despite the settlement’s significance, it still awaits approval in federal court. Over 20 attorneys general have urged caution, raising concerns about the settlement’s adequacy and 3M’s responsibility.

Stuart’s bellwether case isn’t concluded yet. Personal injury and property damage cases continue, with more claims possibly on the horizon. Nevertheless, the most critical aspect, ensuring safe American drinking water, has been addressed.

In the end, as McWilliams aptly put it, “There’s few things in life more precious than drinking water. And this settlement will ensure that American drinking water is safe to consume.”