3M Co., which has spent $100 million on PFAS cleanup in Alabama, on Friday agreed to pay much more in a settlement with the state and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Alabama and EPA officials called it a landmark agreement, the "most far-reaching and significant enforcement action to date taken in regard to PFAS in the country."
Maplewood-based 3M's largest litigation settlement regarding PFAS was with the state of Minnesota in February 2018, when it agreed to pay for $850 million in cleanup actions, mostly in Washington County.
The Alabama agreement covers 3M's Decatur plant as well as other sites, some not yet identified, in the northwest part of the state.
3M said in a statement it was "fully committed" to fulfilling the consent decree obligations.
There is not a price tag attached to the consent decree. Lynn Battle, spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, said it is too soon to determine the cost of the damage in dump sites and in the Tennessee River.
"It protects the public from both past and future contaminations, and puts Alabama ahead of the game in regulating these harmful compounds," Lance LeFleur, director of the environmental management department, said in a statement.
Separately, 3M already has agreed to a $35 million settlement with a water authority in Alabama.
In the Friday consent decree, 3M agreed to both determine PFAS levels and then take remedial steps, including using specialized water and air control equipment, to reduce their presence at sites identified by the state and the EPA. In addition, the company has agreed to do more research to determine the health risks and effects of PFAS and develop best practices for containing them.
3M last year voluntarily acknowledged to regulators that its Decatur plant illegally released a perfluorinated chemical into the Tennessee River, which supplies drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people.
LeFleur said the interim nature of the consent order means that, while it is enforceable immediately, "it is not the end of the process." Additional requirements can be placed on 3M based on the data collected.
3M will assume all the costs of the assessments, remedial actions and research associated with the consent order, LeFleur said, including any costs incurred by Alabama in overseeing 3M's action.
"3M takes pride in being part of the Decatur community for nearly 60 years, and the company values its role as a good neighbor and steward of the environment," Michelle Howell, 3M Decatur plant manager, said in the statement. "During the last 12 months, we have identified areas where we can do more and better, and we're committed to doing our part in our operations moving forward."
PFAS chemicals, known for their water- and heat-resistant properties, have been widely used by industry — most famously in Teflon — and are in products ranging from food packaging to mascara. Health officials said PFAS can be found at low levels in the blood of virtually everyone in the United States and in people and animals across the globe.
Earlier PFAS compounds have been linked to cancer, high cholesterol, immune deficiencies, liver problems and reproductive issues. The crisis has sparked multiple class-action lawsuits and the Hollywood movie "Dark Waters" about DuPont.
3M last year set aside an additional $235 million to cover legal claims, but some legal experts, including those associated with some of the lawsuits in several states, estimate the ultimate cost could exceed $10 billion.
3M is aggressively fighting many of the increased liability claims through lawsuits — and also more stringent regulations and legislation regarding PFAS.
The Alabama consent order could have an effect on future regulations for the chemical industry over PFAS. 3M agreed that toxicity reports and research done to meet the conditions of the order can be used by the EPA as it develops national standards for PFAS.
Penalties related to the order will be assessed in the future, the state said, and will be based on the information gathered or if 3M does not follow through with its obligations in the required time frames.
"We appreciate the fact that 3M has agreed to take all the actions necessary to take responsibility after decades of pollution," LeFleur said.
3M said it has installed water-control equipment already in Decatur and taken other measures including a significant cap and containment project to manage PFAS-impacted soil and groundwater, and the installation of a granular activated carbon system to remove PFAS from groundwater.
Alabama felt a consent decree, rather than litigation such as in Minnesota and other states, was the fastest way to get cleanup underway and ensure safety of residents, Shawn Sibley, the environmental management department's general counsel, said in a statement.
That way, he said, the lawsuit would not be tied up in the courts for years and the research done will help inform the cleanup work.
"3M will pay what it takes to fix permanently whatever PFAS problems it created, in addition to the requirements for investigations and research on any effects of PFAS on public health and the environment," LeFleur said.
3M said in its statement it is "committed to full and timely implementation of the consent order obligations and remains committed to continuing to work with [Alabama], the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the community."
The company is setting up a website for updates.
Catherine Roberts • 612-673-4292