In a significant legal development, U.S. District Judge James Dever in Raleigh has granted approval for more than 100,000 residents and property owners in North Carolina to proceed with claims against E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co and The Chemours Co in a class action lawsuit. The lawsuit revolves around allegations of toxic water pollution stemming from the release of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the Cape Fear River over several decades by a Chemours-owned chemical plant situated south of Fayetteville.
PFAS are a group of chemicals commonly used in various consumer products, including non-stick cookware and fabrics. They have been associated with a range of health issues, including certain cancers. In recognition of the urgent public health and environmental concerns posed by PFAS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulations in March to address these chemicals.
The plaintiffs initially filed their lawsuit in 2017, asserting that the Fayetteville Works chemical plant, spanning 2,000 acres, had discharged substantial amounts of PFAS since 1980. This pollution allegedly contaminated over 100 miles of the Cape Fear River, affecting drinking water and causing extensive damage to municipal and residential piping. Furthermore, the plaintiffs claim to have developed various illnesses linked to PFAS exposure, including cancers and bowel diseases, and note elevated disease rates in counties near the plant.
The class action seeks both punitive and compensatory damages. These include expenses related to the installation and maintenance of water filtration systems, the cost of purchasing bottled water for affected residents, and the expense of replacing water pipes and plumbing fixtures.
Judge Dever’s decision to certify two classes of plaintiffs, including water utility customers and private well owners near the chemical plant, represents a significant milestone in the case. The ruling dismisses arguments by the chemical companies suggesting that identifying individual class members would be overly burdensome and that each plaintiff’s unique circumstances necessitate individual lawsuits.
Attorney Theodore Leopold, representing the class along with the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, welcomed the decision, stating that it brings the case closer to a trial. Chemours, the current owner of the plant, and DuPont, a subsidiary of Corteva Inc, have not yet commented on the ruling.
The lawsuit contends that the chemical companies were aware of the dangers associated with PFAS but failed to disclose these concerns to the public or water utilities relying on the Cape Fear River. Chemours had previously reached a settlement with the state in 2019, agreeing to assist public water utilities in reducing PFAS contamination in the river and taking measures to address contamination in public buildings. The company also agreed to pay $13 million in fines.
In June, Chemours, DuPont de Nemours Inc, and Corteva reached a $1.19 billion settlement with most U.S. public water systems over PFAS contamination. The case is identified as Nix et al. v. The Chemours Co et al., and it is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina under case No. 7:17-cv-00189.