Factoring in the deal with 3M, Rome will receive at least $233 million to address the contamination of its water supply with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of chemicals better known by their acronym, PFAS. The known negative health impacts of PFAS exposure include an increased risk of some cancers, impaired immune system response and developmental delays in children, among many others.
The full amount of money heading to the city to remove the toxins from its drinking water, however, is not yet known. That’s because several other PFAS makers, including DuPont, sued the city of Rome, the AJC and The Rome News-Tribune earlier this month in Floyd County Superior Court to stop the city from disclosing financial terms of their settlements, citing purported “trade secrets.”
Local and state government agencies in Georgia typically release settlement agreements in the normal course of business, as required under state law.
Earlier this week, the News-Tribune was informed by attorneys for the city of Rome that 3M would also object to the release of the settlement agreements. The newspaper later reported 3M had reversed course and would not object.
In a statement, 3M spokesman Sean Lynch said the company never intended to join the DuPont litigation to prevent the settlement’s disclosure. Lynch said the settlement with Rome was appropriate given the “unique and complex” circumstances of the case. The company is still implicated in many other PFAS-related cases —including some in Georgia — and is seeking to finalize a multibillion-dollar settlement with hundreds of water providers around the country.
“We will continue to fulfill our PFAS remediation commitments and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate,” Lynch added.
As part of the Rome agreement, 3M did not admit any wrongdoing or liability in the case, and has previously announced that it will stop making PFAS in 2025. Rome also released the company from liability in any past, present or future claims involving PFAS pollution around the city.
Rome has battled chemical companies, flooring makers and the city of Dalton’s public utility related to the release of PFAS, which the city contends have contaminated Rome’s drinking water roughly 50 miles downstream.
The city’s case argued that Dalton Utilities has received PFAS-laden wastewater for years from flooring plants in the region — known as the “carpet capital of the world” — but that its treatment processes do not remove the chemicals.
The utility sprays wastewater on a 9,600-acre “land application site,” and testing conducted by Rome’s expert witnesses found enormous PFAS concentrations have accumulated on the property. The suit alleged that dangerous amounts of the chemicals run off the site and flow downstream into the Oostanaula River, Rome’s main drinking water supply.
The compounds have been used for years in firefighting foam, nonstick- and water-repellent materials and thousands of other goods, and have been linked to cancer and other serious health impacts. PFAS are commonly called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in nature and accumulate in the environment.
Rome is planning to spend an estimated $100 million to build a new water treatment plant to ensure its drinking water is safe and meets new standards being developed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
To pay for the plant, the city had already raised residents’ water rates by 9% annually through 2025, with additional 3% hikes set to kick in for six years after that.
But the earlier settlement documents obtained by the AJC revealed the companies will cover the cost. In June, Rome officials voted to roll back water rate hikes that had been in effect to pay for the facility.
Prior agreements and the damages have been made public under the Georgia Open Records Act.
In their lawsuit, attorneys for DuPont and the four other chemical companies argue publication of the financial terms “would cause Plaintiffs economic harm and commercial disadvantage.”
The open records law includes certain exceptions for documents, including some matters that might be deemed trade secrets, but an expert on the law called the litigation “outrageous” when DuPont and four other companies originally filed it earlier this month. Richard T. Griffiths, a former CNN journalist and executive and a leader of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said earlier this month the public needs to understand the terms of such settlements.
“Who was held accountable and for what?” he said. “For a private company to sue to prevent access to public records because it might be embarrassed — those are not grounds to deny the public access to the understanding of what happened.”
A hearing in the DuPont-backed lawsuit is scheduled for Oct. 9.
Makers of PFAS chemicals face a mountain of lawsuits and potential damages nationwide. The companies themselves have a history of announcing their own settlement terms.
In June, three of the companies in this case — Chemours, DuPont and Corteva — announced they would pay $1.19 billion to resolve some other PFAS litigation. That same month, 3M announced it agreed to pay $10.3 billion to settle lawsuits claiming its PFAS chemicals contaminated hundreds of water systems around the country. Neither of those figures include the Rome settlements.