PFAS Update: Several PFAS-Related Lawsuits Filed in Wisconsin

On Thursday, March 4, the City of La Crosse filed a lawsuit against 23 companies that manufactured, marketed, or sold firefighting foam containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of chemicals commonly known as PFAS. The foam, known as aqueous firefighting foam (AFFF), is used to extinguish fires involving flammable liquids like airplane fuel. PFAS compounds have been detected in private wells in the area around the La Crosse Regional Airport because of the airport’s use of AFFF.

The lawsuit alleges that the companies were aware the foam would contaminate groundwater but continued to sell it without warning customers. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages to pay for investigation, monitoring, and treatment of PFAS contamination. The lawsuit is just one of hundreds that local governments around the country have filed against PFAS manufacturers.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires airports to have AFFF on hand for firefighting purposes, but a 2018 federal law directed the FAA to stop mandating the use of that foam by October 4, 2021. To date, the FAA has not identified an alternative firefighting agent for airports to use.

An attorney representing residents from the Town of Campbell, which is adjacent to the La Crosse Regional Airport, has also announced plans to sue the city of La Crosse over PFAS contamination. Earlier this year, three companies settled a $17.5 million lawsuit with Peshtigo residents concerning PFAS contamination in the area. The PFAS contamination came from firefighting foam developed and tested at the Fire Technology Center and nearby sites in the Peshtigo/Marinette area.

On Tuesday, February 23, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) and Oconomowoc-based dry cleaner Leather Rich, Inc. filed a lawsuit against the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) involving PFAS. According to WMC, the lawsuit “alleges that the DNR has unilaterally and unlawfully changed the requirements for the state’s Remediation and Redevelopment program and the Voluntary Party Liability Exemption (VPLE) program.” Those programs allow private parties to cooperate with the DNR on environmental cleanups and receive liability protections if they remediate contamination to the satisfaction of the DNR.

Leather Rich, Inc. has been working with the DNR for several years to remediate PFAS contamination on its property under those programs. The lawsuit alleges that DNR improperly added PFAS compounds to its list of hazardous substances and made other changes to the VPLE program without going through the rulemaking process by which state agencies can promulgate enforceable standards. The lawsuit asks the court to declare DNR’s policies as unlawfully adopted.

Be sure to follow Hamilton Consulting Group’s PFAS Issue Update page for comprehensive coverage of this complex policy issue.