Central Iowa water utilities join multistate ‘forever chemicals’ lawsuit

By: - July 26, 2022 5:56 pm

Firefighting foam is the subject of a multistate lawsuit against dozens of companies for PFAS contamination. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fire Administration)

Trustees of two Des Moines metro area drinking water producers have voted to join hundreds of civil claims against manufacturers of firefighting foams that contain so-called “forever chemicals,” which have contaminated Iowa water.

Des Moines Water Works and West Des Moines Water Works are pursuing the litigation to help offset anticipated future costs to remove the chemicals from their treated water. Tests of both systems’ drinking water in recent months have revealed concentrations of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS, for short — that exceed new federal health advisories.

Those advisories are unenforceable goals to protect people from the health effects that have been linked to the chemicals. The toxins persist indefinitely in the environment and are believed to be detectable in the blood of the vast majority of people in the United States. Those health effects include cancers, liver damage, infant development delays and others.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to set enforceable limits on the chemicals that could force water utilities to remove them as part of their treatment processes.

“We know we’re doing everything we can to mitigate the problem,” said Christina Murphy, general manager of the West Des Moines utility. “The treatment options — they’re not simple. They can be quite expensive and challenging.”

It’s unclear how much the new equipment might cost and whether there will be significant ongoing expenses to operate it, she said.

The utility was among the first in the state to tackle the issue after tests last year revealed its treated drinking water had a combined concentration of the two most-prominent PFAS of 5.3 parts per trillion. At the time, it was well below the federal advisory of 70 parts per trillion, but in June the EPA reduced that to .004 parts per trillion for one of the PFAS and .02 parts per trillion for the other.

Current testing technology is incapable of detecting concentrations that small. One of the PFAS would have to be about 500 times its advisory level to be seen by the tests.

West Des Moines Water Works shut down its most-contaminated well — with a combined concentration of 32 parts per trillion of the two PFAS — to reduce the contamination of its treated water. It was successful: The chemicals weren’t detected in subsequent tests.

But the utility was forced to start drawing from the well again because other wells were shut down for maintenance, Murphy said, and the demand for water has increased with hotter temperatures and drier conditions.

Recent tests of the treated water that might again reveal PFAS contamination are pending. The utility is also in the process of testing its 17 shallow wells for PFAS. It’s not testing its four deep wells because they are far less likely to be contaminated.

Firefighting foam is a potential source of contamination in West Des Moines, and it’s the subject of the multistate lawsuit that the two metro utilities recently voted to join. They utilities were approached by law firms that are helping litigate it, including The Driscoll Firm in Missouri.

The foam is believed to have contaminated groundwater near military bases, airports and other sites. The litigation is ongoing in federal court in South Carolina, where it was initially consolidated in late 2018 from 75 pending cases in seven states, according to court records. It now includes hundreds of cases.

Prominent defendants of the lawsuits are companies that manufactured PFAS or used them to create the foams, including 3M, DuPont, Kidde and Tyco. Federal court records note about 40 defendants.

It’s unclear how long the litigation will take to conclude or how much the payouts might be to the central Iowa utilities if it is successful. The attorneys representing the utilities are paid fees based on how much they collect. Murphy said their agreement would pay the attorneys one-third of the award.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has discovered PFAS in about a dozen community drinking water supplies in the state in the past year. Those tests did not find the chemicals in Des Moines Water Works’ treated water, but the utility has said its own testing has detected PFAS sporadically at its plant on Fleur Drive since February 2021 at concentrations of up to 3 parts per trillion.

A creek that drains part of a local Iowa Air National Guard base — which has known PFAS contamination — flows through Water Works Park and into the Raccoon River. The Fleur treatment plant draws water from the river.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.