City contracts with legal counsel in water issue

January 3, 2024

Following an executive session during a meeting held Jan. 2, the City Council voted in favor of an agreement that will allow the McAfee & Taft law firm to explore the potential impact and legal options in connection with allegations of water contamination by Dupont and 3M.

During a meeting in December 2023, the council voted to opt out of a national class action lawsuit against the companies and to engage McAfee & Taft to file the appropriate paperwork to accomplish that. On Tuesday, the council voted to contract with the law firm to explore the potential impact of the so-called “forever chemicals” and possible legal actions that might be taken by the City.

“(Opting out) left us open to pursue all options,” said City Attorney Jess Kane. “So it is my recommendation that the council approve this agreement with McAfee & Taft to ensure that we understand the nature and extent of this problem and what our options are.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) describes PFAS as “a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water.” The fluoropolymer coatings can be found in a variety of products, including firefighting foam, clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces and the insulation of electrical wire.

According to the CDC, the “forever chemicals” are a concern because they do not break down in the environment, can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources, and build up (bioaccumulate) in fish and wildlife. PFAS can be found in rivers and lakes and in many types of animals on land and in the water.

While some animal studies have indicated PFAS contamination may affect growth and development in humans, as well as reproductive and thyroid function effects, the CDC cautions that more research is needed to assess human health effects from exposure to PFAS.

Final approval on the $1.19 billion Dupont settlement was heard on Dec. 14, while the $10.5 billion 3M settlement is to be considered in February. Every active public water system (as of June 22) in the U.S. is considered part of the class unless they opt out, if they: 1) have one or more impacted water sources, or 2) do not have an impacted water source but are required to test for certain PFAS or serve more than 3,300 people.

Under The Safe Drinking Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues a list of unregulated contaminants to be monitored by public water systems. This monitoring is done through the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule.

“We have and continue to test for 29 variations of PFAS as required by the EPA,” said Water Utilities Director Terry Lauritsen.

Of the tests completed by the City of Bartlesville, one PFAS variation has been detected (PFBA) at 5.6 parts per trillion. The lowest threshold that this contaminant can be detected is 4.0 parts per trillion.

“There is no rule or guidance from the EPA or Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) on the recommended or regulatory threshold for this contaminant, as it is not currently regulated,” Lauritsen said. “The EPA is gathering this data to understand the frequency that these 29 PFAS contaminants are found in drinking water and at what levels. The EPA will use this data to make determinations about future regulations.”