(WHNT) – In a hearing Thursday afternoon, a Morgan County judge approved the final settlement of a lawsuit filed against 3M in 2002.
The settlement of the case, St. John v. 3M, includes a class action lawsuit that covers residents of six northern Alabama counties, or about 440,000 people. Most of these residents will not receive any money under the agreement.
The St. John plaintiffs include landowners who deposited sludge contaminated with 3M chemicals on their property. These owners are to receive $1,000 per acre for the affected properties and have until May 5 to file a claim. Lawyers told the court today that around 92% of affected 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 to 3M’s future cleanup expenses.
The 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 releasing certain PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS, in the Tennessee River and surrounding areas. Defendants deny all allegations made in the lawsuit.”
An important detail of the settlement is that it largely bars future damage claims against 3M related to chemical contamination, other than claims for personal injury. Residents who believed their property had been contaminated with 3M’s PFAS chemicals had until March 17 to opt out of the comprehensive settlement which received final approval from retired Morgan County Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson .
There are about 200 people who have filed to opt out of the settlement, the court heard Thursday.
Throughout northern Alabama, it includes residents of Colbert, Franklin, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, and Morgan counties.
The terms of the settlement were drafted in a joint mediation effort involving both the Morgan County plaintiffs’ claims and a federal lawsuit filed against 3M by the Tennessee Riverkeeper Group. The overall agreement was announced in October.
Tennessee Riverkeeper attorney Bill Matsikoudis detailed last fall what the cleanup will include.
“There’s going to be soil sampling, groundwater sampling, surface water sampling, fish sampling, they’re going to, 3M that is, inject dye into groundwater and use technology to find out where it’s going. finds in the river,” Matsikoudis said. “So we understand how the groundwater plumes pull that into the river, where it could come up through the sediment. To understand how PFAS impacts the water so that we can find the solution to fix it.
Attorney Leon Ashford, who represents the St. John plaintiffs, said 3M will also provide plaintiffs with test samples for their own inspections.
Ashford is from County Limestone. He told News 19 in March that state law doesn’t support everything he’d like to accomplish, but he said the settlement was a resolution. And just the beginning.
“It’s not a perfect settlement, it’s a settlement that makes a big difference for the people of northern 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 which I think is a very good start for a long-term project.
The settlement includes attorneys’ fees to be paid by 3M and other defendants. The Ashford firm is seeking about 15% of the $300 million settlement, or about $46 million. Ashford said their litigation helped spur settlements reached by 3M with the Riverkeeper Group, the City of Decatur, Morgan County and ADEM. He added that he was happy to explain the high fees. His firm has been working on the case since 2002.
“We attempted to prove the claims for bodily injury, for the exposure of employees and their families, we were unable to do so because of science and medicine, and we stuck to it,” a said Ashford. “We have actually engaged in conversations with 3M about the possibility of doing a class action lawsuit regarding medical surveillance, even though the law in Alabama does not provide for it. That fell apart when litigation in Minnesota erupted. We then pursued those property damage claims. Stayed the course for about 15 years, with no enforceable limit for land or water in Alabama then or now.
The settlement does not include caps on the costs of future cleanup work and there is $2.5 million to cover the cost of reviewing documents by plaintiffs’ experts.
So far, the settlement will cost $3 million far less than the $850 million lawsuit settlement with the state of Minnesota. Laws may impose liability for environmental damage.
3M manufactured PFAS chemicals in Decatur for a long time until about 2002.
“We see them in the containers we use to pop popcorn, in Scotchgard, and in our clothes,” Ashford said. “We also know that for these chemicals to be in these places they have to be made, and so what we have is a legacy of those chemicals being made and used. The waste from these manufacturing processes has literally contaminated the land and soil in and around factory sites and other places.
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