HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The long-running environmental damage lawsuit the Tennessee Riverkeeper group filed against 3M is near resolution, a federal judge was told Monday, except for one major, surprising wrinkle.
An attorney for the Riverkeeper group told U.S. District Judge Liles Burke Monday he believed the settlement could be finalized within 45 days, a sentiment echoed by 3M’s attorney. But 3M’s attorney said there was unfinished business with Decatur, Morgan County and Decatur Utilities.
An attorney representing Decatur, Morgan County and Decatur Utilities, who are also defendants in the case, told the court his clients are “in essence” plaintiffs and they have their own concerns to resolve with 3M.
Attorney Barney Lovelace, representing those governments, told the court he thought a Sept. 1 settlement date would be “optimistic.” Lovelace cited a number of properties “contaminated” by 3M chemicals in Decatur.
The position marks a split among parties who appeared to have close ties.
3M and an attorney for the City of Decatur told News 19 last year that 3M has been reimbursing Decatur and Morgan County for its legal fees.
“As part of settlement negotiations with the City of Decatur, Morgan County and others related to PFAS in the Decatur area, the City and County have demanded — and 3M has agreed — that 3M reimburse them for legal fees and expenses incurred as the negotiations continue,” a 3M spokesman told WHNT News 19.
The lawsuit, filed in 2016, has had several settlement deadline extensions and Judge Burke pressed the lawyers Monday morning for an end date.
After further discussion, the judge set a Sept. 15 deadline for resolving the case and ordered the parties to prepare an evidence discovery plan – with an eye toward going to trial – if the date is not reached.
The lawsuit alleges 3M and other chemical makers in the Decatur area contaminated the Tennessee River with PFAs chemicals produced at their sites. The lawsuit seeks an order directing cleanup efforts for the river.
The listed defendants in the case are: 3M, BFI Waste Systems of Alabama, the City of Decatur, the Municipal Utilities Board of Decatur, Morgan County, Daikin America Inc., Dyneon LLC and Toray Fluorofibers (America) Inc.
The city and utility defendants’ own properties that are also contaminated by PFAS chemicals, said William Matsikoudis, an attorney representing Tennessee Riverkeeper.
PFAs chemicals have been described as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down over time. They are used to create barriers to liquids and oils and have been linked to a number of health conditions.
Matsikoudis told the court the settlement details that have been worked out need to melded into a global settlement agreement for the corporate parties and others to sign. He said with a little more time, and if the parties work with a sense of urgency, they can get a resolution. He said 3M is also looking to settle a PFAS-related class action that was filed in 2002 in Morgan County Circuit Court.
The judge asked the parties why back in December they believed a settlement was near.
Matsikoudis said he was not aware at the time of the “magnitude” of the disagreement with 3M and the government entities, and had not heard of them.
Attorney Harlan Prater, representing 3M, said he’s worked on the cases for several years and is committed to seeing them resolved. But, he said, there are still significant negotiations with the Decatur, Morgan County and Decatur Utilities parties to work out. He suggested to the court that in aiming for the September deadline the parties should present 20-day updates on the progress of negotiations.
The court agreed, though set updates to occur every 30 days up to Sept. 15.
Lovelace said the landscape for negotiation by the governments is complicated by the reality of public meetings and the need to go into executive sessions to update elected officials. He said the matter is of significant public interest and they expect numerous people in the community will want to speak about any proposed settlement in a public forum.
The West Morgan-East Lawrence water authority reached a $35 million settlement with 3M in 2019 over PFAS in drinking water.
Last year, 3M and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management entered a consent order requiring 3M to do cleanup at chemically contaminated properties in Morgan and Lawrence counties.