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3M, Georgia Town Must Face Suit Over PFAS in Water Supply (1)

April 1, 2022, 3:50 PMUpdated: April 1, 2022, 7:08 PM

The operators of a Georgia textile mill, 3M Co., and others were unable to shake a resident’s lawsuit over alleged PFAS contamination in the local water supply, a federal court in the state ruled.

Earl Parris Jr., of Summerville, Ga., told the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia that his water has been contaminated with the so-called forever chemicals.

Mount Vernon Mill purchased products containing PFAS from 3M and other manufacturers to make water- and stain-resistant fabrics, the lawsuit says. The PFAS then arrives through wastewater to the Trion Water Pollution Control Plant, the lawsuit says, but the plant can’t degrade the chemicals. As a result, the PFAS ends up in the Chattanooga River, or it’s disposed of as sludge on land in the Raccoon Creek watershed, according to the complaint.

The Town of Trion, which owns and operates the plant, isn’t immune from the suit, the court said. Trion argued it’s immune under the Georgia Constitution, but federal law ultimately decides, according to the ruling. Eleventh Amendment immunity doesn’t apply to counties and similar municipalities, the court said March 30.

Trion also argued it isn’t liable under the Clean Water Act because it’s operating within the terms of its water pollution permit. But the permit doesn’t have any conditions related to PFAS, the court said. More information is needed to determine whether Trion disclosed its releases of PFAS during the permitting process, according to the ruling.

The court said it also needs more information to decide whether the PFAS sludge is the “functional equivalent of a direct discharge” that requires a permit.

Parris did establish a duty of reasonable care under Georgia law that applies to 3M and other manufacturers, according to the ruling. The duty emerged when the companies supplied PFAS to Mount Vernon knowing that the chemicals could contaminate water supplies, the court said. Mount Vernon also had a duty to “exercise reasonable care” to avoid polluting waterways, the court said.

Parris showed the companies should have anticipated that Mount Vernon would use and dispose of PFAS in a way that would contaminate surface waters, according to the ruling. He also showed Mount Vernon and the manufacturers could be held liable for failing to stop the pollution, the court said.

Judge Thomas W. Thrash Jr. granted Summerville’s request to intervene in the case.

“3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will continue to vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship in this action,” the company said in a statement Friday.

Gary Davis of Ashville, N.C., Morris & Dean LLC, and Davis & Whitlock PC represent Parris.

Smith Gambrell & Russell LLP, Lightfoot Franklin & White LLC, Jones Day, and others represent the manufacturers. Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP represents Mount Vernon Mills. Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani LLP represents Trion.

The case is Parris v. 3M Co., N.D. Ga., No. 4:21-cv-00040, 3/30/22.

(Adds comment from 3M in tenth paragraph. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Maya Earls in Washington at mearls@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com