'Forever chemicals' in Bend's water supply prompt city to join class action suit against 3M, DuPont

November 21, 2023
'Forever chemicals' in Bend's water supply prompt city to join class action suit against 3M, DuPont

The city of Bend joined national class-action lawsuits against manufacturers 3M Co. and DuPont de Nemours after a small amount of forever chemicals was found in a well that supplies drinking water to Bend residents.

Bend’s water, however, remains safe to drink, officials said.

As part of nationally mandated testing, city officials in May tested for PFAS, a group of thousands of chemicals called forever chemicals because they don’t break down in the body or the environment. One well — the Copperstone Well near NW Mt. Washington Drive — tested positive for the chemicals.

PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

The well was immediately shut down and will remain shut down to allow for further testing and planning. Officials tested that well again in August, and no PFAS chemicals were detected.

The cause is currently unknown, and it’s proved to be a bit of a mystery for local and state officials.

Typically, manufacturing facilities, airports and military bases are the most likely culprits of PFAS chemical contamination, said Harry Esteve, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

But in Bend, those sources are few and far between.

“We’re kind of puzzled by that actually because there’s no likely source,” Esteve said.

PFAS chemicals are everywhere, though.

“They’re essentially these manmade chemicals that are in everything from Teflon cookware to cosmetics to Gore-Tex,” Esteve said.

PFAS chemicals are also a common ingredient in firefighting foam, he said.

The Oregon Health Authority and the Environmental Protection Agency have set health advisory limits for PFAS chemical levels. OHA’s is 30 points per trillion, and the EPA’s is less than a quarter of a point per trillion.

One point per trillion is equivalent to a single drop in 500,000 barrels of water. In the Copperstone Well, the city of Bend’s tests discovered four PFAS chemicals, ranging from 4.2 to 8.7 points per trillion.

Bend is not alone.

Twenty-five public water systems across Oregon have detected PFAS chemicals, according to OHA spokesperson Jonathan Modie.

Hope for a remedy

The Bend City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to join class-action lawsuit against two major manufacturers of PFAS-containing products, 3M and DuPont.

Bend joined dozens of other jurisdictions across the country that are also opting into the suits, which were filed in U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.

The PFAS chemical contaminations have been decades in the making. 3M began manufacturing and selling PFAS-containing products from the 1940s until 2002, and DuPont from the 1950s through today, the lawsuits read.

All that, “with the knowledge that these toxic compounds would be released into the environment,” the suits read.

Interactive map of PFAS contamination sites across the U.S.

As a result of the class-action suits, which were settled in September, 3M has agreed to pay out between $10.5 billion and $12.5 billion, and DuPont has agreed to pay out $1.15 billion.

The state of Oregon has also joined the 3M lawsuit as an interested party, according to court documents.

Bend, which has fared better in terms of contamination compared to large metropolitan areas in the south and along the East Coast, has a better chance of receiving funds to mitigate the contamination by joining the plaintiffs, Mayor Melanie Kebler said.

“In the end, I think the council wanted to recognize it’d be very difficult do it on our own,” she said.

The ‘forever’ in ‘forever chemicals’

The lawsuits are just one piece of a bigger pie, said Michael Selkirk, an associate attorney for the city.

All levels of government are now confronting PFAS chemicals, and they are just one part of a larger issue: The contamination of public water supply, Selkirk said.

“How the city continues to manage its watershed, and the availability of clean drinking water — there are going to be issues with how to deal with that into the future,” Selkirk said.

While Bend’s contamination wasn’t as substantial or widespread as other jurisdictions, joining the lawsuits, gives the city the opportunity to offset the costs associated with addressing the PFAS contamination while looking toward the future.

“How we as a country respond to the risk of PFAS contamination, that issue is serious,” Selkirk said.

The EPA is developing regulations for PFAS chemicals that are expected to be finalized late this year or in early 2024. Statewide regulations could also be possible.

Depending on imminent test results from the city’s contaminated well and how much money the city receives from the lawsuits, that future could look differently, according to Mike Buettner, the city’s utilities director.

For certain, testing for PFAS chemicals will be part of the city’s regular water-quality assessments, Buettner said.

What will be done to the well, is less certain.

Decommissioning it would be the cheapest option, and removing and moving it elsewhere could cost between $5 million and $10 million, he said.

Regardless, as Buettner looks toward the summertime, when water use in Bend is at its peak, it’ll be important to respond. The city can manage without one well thanks to Bend’s relatively small geographic footprint, but it will be tough long term, he said.

Buettner and Drexell Barnes, the city’s manager of water quality and lab services, agree that PFAS contamination wasn’t a matter of if — it was a matter of when.

“This one is really weird,” said Barnes. “If you look for it, you’re going to find it.”

The presence of PFAS chemicals in drinking water, and likely wastewater, will be an ongoing issue. It’s the new normal in the world of water, and it spares no one, Barnes said.

“We all live here,” Barnes said. “We all drink this water. This is an issue for all of us.”

More information on PFAS chemicals can be found at epa.gov/pfas and bendoregon.gov/waterquality.

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