(WHNT) — At a hearing Thursday afternoon a Morgan County judge approved the final settlement of a lawsuit that was filed against 3M back in 2002.
The settlement of the case, St. John vs. 3M, includes a class-action that covers residents in six North Alabama counties, an estimated 440,000 people. Most of those residents won’t receive any money in the agreement.
The St. John plaintiffs include property owners who had 3M-chemical contaminated sludge put on their property. Those property owners are due to receive $1,000 an acre for affected properties and have until May 5 to file a claim. Attorneys told the court today about 92% of the affected property owners have filed claims.
Court documents say it is 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.
Attorneys in the case described the lawsuit this way: “The Plaintiffs allege that the Defendants polluted the Tennessee River and the soil, groundwater, surface water, sediment, air, and fish by discharging certain PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS, into the Tennessee River and the surrounding areas. The Defendants deny all of the claims made in the lawsuit.”
One significant detail of the settlement is that it largely bars future damages claims against 3M related to chemical contamination, other than personal injury claims. Residents who believed their property has been contaminated by 3M’s PFAS chemicals had until March 17 to opt-out of the global settlement that was given final approval by retired Morgan County Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson.
There are an estimated 200 people who have filed to opt out of the settlement, the court was told Thursday.
Across North Alabama, it includes residents in Colbert, Franklin, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, and Morgan counties.
The settlement terms were sketched out as part of joint mediation effort that involved both the claims from the Morgan County plaintiffs and a federal lawsuit brought against 3M by the Tennessee Riverkeeper group. The overall agreement was announced in October.
Tennessee Riverkeeper lawyer Bill Matsikoudis detailed last fall 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,” Matsikoudis said. “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.”
Attorney Leon Ashford, who represents the St. John plaintiffs said 3M will also give plaintiffs testing samples for their own inspections.
Ashford is a Limestone County native. He told News 19 in March that 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,” Ashford said. “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.”
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 said. “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.
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,” Ashford said. “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.”
For further details on the settlement, click here.