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MORGAN COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) – A lawsuit that began in 2002 against 3M over chemical contamination is awaiting final approval from a judge, in a case that will affect 440,000 residents in six North Alabama counties.

The case is St. John vs. 3M. For residents in Colbert, Franklin, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan Counties, the settlement is not expected to provide financial payments but lawyers handling the case said residents across the area will benefit from the extensive PFAS chemical cleanup 3M is set to undertake.

Residents of those areas who think they may have a claim over chemical contamination and want to pursue such a claim have to opt-out of the settlement by March 17 or their lawsuit options could be significantly limited. News 19 has extensive reporting on the process which can be found at the link above.

3M made PFAS chemicals in Decatur for a long time until around 2002.

“We see them in the containers we use to pop popcorn, in Scotchgard and in our clothes. We also know in order for those chemicals to be in those places they have to get manufactured, and so what we have is a legacy of those chemicals, being manufactured and used. Waste from those manufacturing processes have literally contaminated land and soil in and around plant sites and in other locations,” said Leon Ashford an attorney for the St. John plaintiffs.

The chemicals have been linked to a number of health effects and now after multiple lawsuits and regulatory action, 3M has agreed to expand its cleanup efforts.

Court documents describe it as a $300 million cleanup settlement. About $100 million of that will go to Decatur-related projects, nearly $150 million in cleanup costs already spent and about $60 million will go toward future 3M cleanup expenses.

Tennessee Riverkeeper lawyer Bill Matsikoudis detailed what the cleanup will include, “There’s going to be sampling of the soil, of the groundwater, of the surface water, of the fish, they’re going to, 3M that is, inject dye into the groundwater and use technology to find out where it’s coming up in the river. So we understand how the groundwater plumes are taking this into the river, where it might be coming up through the sediment. To understand how the PFAS is impacting the water so we can come up with the solution to how to remediate this.”

Ashford said 3M will also give plaintiffs testing samples for their own inspections.

Lawrence County Community Advocate Brenda Hampton, who’s warned of PFAS contamination for years is hopeful given the recent settlements.

“I feel confident now that they will address the situation because they’ve been exposed now. And so everyone knows that they are the cause of the problem that’s in this area and I think the CEO they have now do want to clean up this area,” she told News 19.

3M is also under a cleanup order from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).

The settlement includes lawyers’ fees to be paid by 3m and other defendants. Ashford’s firm is asking for about 15% of the $300 million settlement, that’s about $46 million. Ashford said their litigation helped spur the settlements 3M reached with the Riverkeeper group, the City of Decatur, Morgan County and ADEM. He added he is glad to explain the large fee. His firm has been working on the case since 2002.

“We attempted to prove personal injury claims, for exposure for employees and their families, we couldn’t do that because of the science and the medicine, and we stuck with it,” Ashford explained. “We actually engaged in conversations with 3M about potentially doing a medical monitoring class action, even though the law in Alabama did not provide for that. That fell apart when the litigation in Minnesota came about. We then pursued these claims for property damage. Stayed the course for 15 or so years, with no enforceable limit for soil or water in Alabama then or today.

The settlement doesn’t include caps on costs for future cleanup work and there is $2.5 million to cover the costs for plaintiffs’ experts to review material.

So far, the deal will cost 3M far less than the $850 million lawsuit settlement reached with the state of Minnesota. The laws there can impose liability for environmental damage.

Ashford is a Limestone County native, he said state law doesn’t support everything he’d like to accomplish but he said the settlement is a resolution. And just the start.

“This is not a perfect settlement, this is a settlement that makes a big difference to the people in North Alabama. It brings together the best experts in the world, who don’t work for 3M and others like 3M. We have accomplished something that I think is a great, great, start, to a long-term project,” Ashford said.

We know the lawyers are getting paid well and we know Alabama’s law limit what the state can collect from polluters. What we don’t know is how long it will take to clean up this mess, if ever.

A final settlement hearing for the case is scheduled in Morgan County Circuit Court for April 21st.