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Delaware settles with PFAS-linked companies to fund testing, cleanup

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The state has secured $50 million to handle PFAS contamination in Delaware under a settlement with companies associated with production of the toxic chemicals.

Delaware settled with DuPont, Corteva and Chemours for DuPont's use and production of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The agreement resolves the companies’ responsibility for damages caused by releases of historical compounds within or impacting the state, including PFAS, subject to certain limitations.

PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer and other health problems, and have been found in drinking water in all three of Delaware’s counties, as well as the Delaware River and Bay. 

State justice officials say it’s the largest environmental damages recovery the state has ever secured. The money will go to the state environmental and health agencies, and can be used for testing and cleanup. 

“Our goal here is comprehensive,” said Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings in an interview. “That is to provide a fund that we know will be sufficient to do the necessary research, testing, the installation of water filtration systems that will ensure that our drinking water is safe. ”

The settlement will also fund grants for community initiatives like health clinics. 

Artesian and the City of New Castle’s water utility shut down and installed filters on drinking water wells near the Delaware Air National Guard Base after finding them contaminated PFAS in 2014. Hundreds of New Castle residents participated in a national study by the CDC of PFAS exposure through drinking water, and were found last year to have three different PFAS chemicals in their blood at levelsseveral times the national average.

Blades residents were told to stop drinking municipal water in 2018 after elevated levels of PFAS were found in public and private wells there. Last year the Blades groundwater contamination site was added to the Superfund National Priorities List, which includes the “most serious” uncontrolled or abandoned releases of contamination in the country. 

PFAS have also been detected in private wells near the Dover Air Force Base at levels up tothousands of times the EPA’s unenforceable health advisory level. 

Conduct covered in the settlement announced Tuesday includes any release of PFAS into the Delaware Bay, the Delaware River and its tributaries, or any other natural resources held in trust by the state; the design, marketing, sale, distribution, use, or disposal of PFAS; any failure to warn others about the hazards of PFAS; and the corporate transfer of assets and liabilities by the companies. Chemours spun off from DuPont in 2015. 

“These companies have a long, proud history in our state,” said Governor John Carney in a statement. "This agreement is a natural extension of that legacy and signifies a commitment to continue investing in the quality of life of our citizens and the health of our environment."

“This settlement could not have been achieved without the goodwill and assistance of all parties.” said Ed Breen, executive chairman and chief executive officer of DuPont, in a statement. “That goodwill is borne out of the Companies’ more than 200-year relationship to the State, its people, and its economy.”

Collin O’Mara, former secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) and the current president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, says the settlement is a big deal.

“This is the most significant environmental cleanup settlement in Delaware’s history,” he said. “To have this scale of remediation in our contaminated groundwater is going to improve the health of tens of thousands of Delawareans.”

Carbon filtration has been installed in public water systems in Delaware where PFAS contamination is known. In New Castle, the costs of PFAS treatment are largely borne by water customers

In addition to the initial $50 million promised in the settlement, Delaware could receive up to $25 million more based on whether other states secure similar settlements. 

State officials say the settlement does not affect claims that individuals or communities might bring against the companies for exposure to the chemicals. 

In 2019, five Blades residentsfiled a lawsuit on behalf of over 1,300 residents against 3M, DuPont and Chemours, which they blame for contamination of the town’s drinking water with PFAS. 

The settlement announced Tuesday is not a resolution of any current lawsuit by the state, but resulted from a multi-year investigation by the state Department of Justice. 

“Litigation in this arena often lasts a decade—so Delawareans wouldn't see money for a decade,” Jenning said. “But we were able to achieve this in good faith by working very hard with the companies to get where we needed to be.”

State officials note DuPont, Corteva, and Chemours have responsibility “only for a portion” of Delaware’s PFAS contamination. Jennings says she will continue to pursue other sources of PFAS within the state.

There is currently no enforceable federal standard for PFAS in drinking water, but this summer the General Assembly passed a bill that would see the state develop its own, like New Jersey has done. In addition to directing DNREC and the Division of Public Health to develop Maximum Contaminant Levels, which would require public water systems to proactively test for the chemicals, the legislation mandates a statewide “survey” of PFAS in drinking water. The measure is currently awaiting Governor John Carney’s signature.

“This [settlement] does reinforce once again why we need a national solution,” O’Mara said. “We’re fortunate in Delaware that Kathy Jennings is a strong attorney general, and she’s been able to negotiate this really strong settlement. But this is a nationwide problem.”

This story will has been updated.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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