PFAS water lawsuits expose financial impacts on state’s poor communities

By Dan Ross | Capital & Main | March 22, 2021

Read the full article by Dan Ross (Capital & Main)

Santa Clarita, a comfortable exurb of some 213,000 residents about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is one of hundreds of California communities and districts grappling with the pricey problem of drinking water that’s been tainted by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), chemicals that have been linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.

Last year the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency (SCV Water) joined a multidistrict lawsuit filed in South Carolina that goes after chemical manufacturers and makers of PFAS-laden aqueous firefighting foam. Legal observers predict that this filing, along with a few recent separate suits within California, will release a flood of similar actions across the state. But as the sheer enormity and complexity of the PFAS problem become clearer, water quality experts, environmentalists and community advocates are growing increasingly concerned about the impacts on smaller, cash-strapped drinking water systems, especially those in low-income communities already struggling with poor quality drinking water.

Which is why some of these experts are calling for California’s chief lawyer, its attorney general, to go after PFAS polluters—as has happened in other states—in order to secure vital funds for struggling utilities, especially when the associated costs of PFAS pollution are proving astronomical. How this plays out is quickly, if quietly, defining how seriously Sacramento takes the issue of clean drinking water.

SCV Water recently cut the ribbon on a $6 million-plus water treatment facility to bring just three wells back online. Agency officials predict $100 million in capital costs for treatment systems and as much as $20 million per year in operations and maintenance to return all of the valley’s 17 PFAS-impacted wells back to service. The financial toll from PFAS contamination to the Orange County Water District is projected at $1 billion over 30 years.

‘The state does have authority that they could exercise here,’ said Steve Fleischli, senior director for water initiatives for the Natural Resources Defense Council, about legal remedies for cost recovery. ‘I don’t think they fully understand or appreciate the full scope of the problem yet.’

Furthermore, in order to maximize funds for the utilities, any state-led approach should be independent of the multidistrict suit in South Carolina, according to Robert Bowcock, founder of water quality consultancy firm Integrated Resource Management and a drinking water expert. ‘What needs to happen is for the attorney general, who’s not going to take a 40% cut, to come in and represent all water utilities,’ said Bowcock.

Yet it’s unclear what kind of legal plan the attorney general’s office has in mind for the problem. In response to a series of questions, a spokesperson for the office wrote, ‘We are unable to speak to any potential legal strategy.’

This answer will prove cold comfort to impacted communities. PFAS chemicals are a vast family of more than 6,300 different variants that are used in a wide variety of everyday products including carpets, textiles, food packaging and firefighting products. Researchers recently found PFAS chemicals in several common pesticides. Given how soluble PFAS compounds are, the way in which they can be transported through the atmosphere and their sheer scale of use, the problem is expected to deepen as the state continues to expand monitoring…”

This content provided by the PFAS Project.