La Crosse files lawsuit against ‘forever chemical’ companies after contamination spread to over 100 homes

The City of La Crosse filed a lawsuit Thursday against a number of companies that sell and manufacture firefighting foam containing toxic “forever chemicals,” including Marinette-based Tyco Fire Products. 

The city is alleging that the manufacturers continued to make and sell the foam products for use at the city’s airport, even though they knew the danger that the PFAS chemicals in them posed to the environment and humans.

Over 20 companies are named in the suit, including Tyco, Chemguard, West Virginia-based DuPont and Minnesota-based 3M.

The City of La Crosse for years has used the firefighting foam at the La Crosse Regional Airport, which is located on the northern portion of French Island, just over the Black River from the city center. 

The contamination was originally discovered in 2014 in two city wells located on the island during testing by the Environmental Protection Agency for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most well-known substances in the PFAS family. The city began aggressively testing private wells on the island in late 2020 and discovered how far the chemicals had moved from the airport. 

RELATED: What you should know about PFAS, or ‘forever’ chemicals, contaminating drinking water in parts of Wisconsin

The foam has been used to extinguish flames after plane crashes at the airport and to prevent gasoline fires after spills. It has been spread onto the ground at the airport during routine testing of the foam to make sure it was still effective. After the foam hit the ground, it was able to soak into the mostly sandy soil and leached into the wells of homes surrounding the airport.

More than 100 wells on the island have been tested for PFAS, and many families are now receiving bottled water to drink and cook with, because the water in their wells is unsafe. 

Mayor Tim Kabat said Thursday afternoon the city is doing all it can to figure out the extent of the contamination. 

“We are taking this very seriously and we are working what seems like almost around the clock, nonstop on this issue now for months,” he said. 

The lawsuit could take years to reach a conclusion, but at the end, if the city gains any money, it will likely be put toward a permanent solution for the residents dealing with the pollution, Kabat said. 

Attorney Erin Dickinson, of the Crueger Dickinson Firm in Whitefish Bay, said the lawsuit is an attempt by the city to hold the companies that produced the firefighting foam responsible.

She said the companies have known since the 1970s that the foams they sold contained harmful chemicals but did nothing to mitigate the problem or inform the buyers of the danger. Lawsuits like this one, she said, are a step to making sure that those companies are paying for the cleanup, and not the city. 

“When the companies don’t police themselves, it falls to the court system to do,” she said. “The goal is to get the companies to clean up the mess they caused.” 

She said she knows residents of the island are also working with attorneys toward potential lawsuits against the manufacturers as well, and hopes that there is an ability for the city and its residents to work alongside each other to hold the manufacturers responsible. 

Dickinson is working on the lawsuit alongside attorney Paul Napoli of Napoli Shkolnik Law Firm. The two are also representing a number of other clients throughout the nation in other PFAS-related cases. All of the cases will be heard by a judge in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina, where cases nationwide involving PFAS contamination from firefighting foam are being heard. There is a chance that the La Crosse case could be joined in with the others.  

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals used for their water- and stain-resistant qualities in products including clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam.

RELATED: Bottled water doesn’t solve all problems for residents with PFAS-contaminated water

The chemicals are persistent, remaining both in the environment and human body over time. Accumulation of the chemicals in the body has been linked to cancer, studies have shown, or other adverse health effects. The chemicals have also shown up in fish and deer, for which the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has issued advisories. 

PFAS have been found in water across the state, including 52 sites of fires where PFAS-containing foam was used to put out the flames, landfills and spill sites.

The state’s worst contamination is in Marinette and Peshtigo, originating in the area around the Tyco Fire Products testing facility, which was used to test firefighting foam for years before the practice was ended in 2017. 

In early January, a settlement was announced for 271 households in the town of Peshtigo, worth $17.5 million. Residents of the area between Jan. 1965 and Dec. 2020 could receive up to $60,000 or $70,000 in that case, depending on the level of contamination. Napoli is one of the lawyers working on that settlement. 

Legal action against companies who produce PFAS-containing firefighting foam has become more frequent during the last several years. 

In 2017, DuPont and Chemours settled 3,550 lawsuits for $670.7 million related to contamination from a plant in West Virginia, first run by DuPont and later Chemours.

The contamination there stemmed from PFOA, one of the most well-researched PFAS compounds. The compound was used to make Teflon — a nonstick coating used on products including cooking pans — which was released into water and air surrounding the plant. The case was highlighted by the 2019 movie “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo. 

DuPont has also settled other cases, including another 2017 settlement with Kenneth Vigneron, who alleged PFOA exposure caused his kidney cancer. Vigneron lived miles from the West Virginia plant and was awarded $10.5 million in punitive damages, as well as $2 million in compensatory damages. 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura