Santa Fe County residents join national PFAS-related class action lawsuit

Apr. 17—Through a recently filed class action lawsuit, Santa Fe County residents are poised to become involved in national litigation seeking accountability from the manufacturers of toxic chemicals that have polluted communities across the U.S.

Santa Fe County found contamination of PFAS — a group of manmade chemicals linked to increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, among other health problems — in private wells in La Cienega and La Cieneguilla late last year. The discovery left people scrambling to determine the scope of contamination and transition to safe sources of water.

A possible source of contamination is the New Mexico Army National Guard's use of aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, to extinguish fires its facility at the Santa Fe Regional Airport. Both the National Guard and state Environment Department are investigating whether PFAS at the site contaminated the regional aquifer, then migrated into residents' private wells.

In March, attorneys from the law firm Singleton Schreiber filed a PFAS-related class action lawsuit on behalf of Jennifer Steketee and other residents of La Cienega and La Cieneguilla.

The lawsuit names about 20 manufacturers of PFAS or AFFF, including the St. Paul, Minn.-based conglomerate 3M Company and the Wilmington, Del.-based chemicals company DuPont.

Attorney Brian Colón in an interview accused the companies of putting "profits over people" by continuing to manufacture components of AFFF despite knowing for decades it presented "an unreasonable risk" to the environment and human health.

"At the end of the day, they knew what they were doing was going to contaminate wells," he said. "Our advocacy is to make sure the corporations that manufacture AFFF are held accountable and they're the ones that bear the cost of remediation and compensating these families and communities that have been impacted."

In an email, a spokesman for 3M, Grant Thompson, did not directly respond to the lawsuit's allegation the company continued manufacturing PFAS despite knowing the chemicals' harmful effects.

"As the science and technology of PFAS, societal and regulatory expectations, and our expectations of ourselves have evolved, so has how we manage PFAS," Thompson wrote. "We have and will continue to deliver on our commitments — including remediating PFAS where appropriate, investing in water treatment, and collaborating with communities. 3M will address PFAS litigation by defending itself in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate."

A spokesman for DuPont did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensation for affected property owners, including for groundwater remediation, costs of alternative water supplies, loss of use or enjoyment of properties, decreased property values and the "annoyance, discomfort and inconvenience caused by the contamination."

The number of people who might join the class action lawsuit is unknown, but it covers an area with an estimated 590 properties that use wells, according to the complaint filed in First Judicial District Court.

3M, DuPont and other manufacturers already face similar litigation elsewhere in the country, so the local lawsuit likely will become wrapped into much larger litigation in South Carolina, Colón said.

The case could take years to resolve.

"We're at the mercy of corporate America's approach to litigation, which is delay, delay, delay," he said.

A few residents said they won't hang their hats on seeing the benefits of a national-level class action lawsuit because a potential settlement would be distributed among so many people.

Andrea La Cruz-Crawford, president of the La Cienega Valley Association, said her organization has no position on the lawsuit and rather than relying on its eventual outcome will continue working on grassroots initiatives "that we know will help residents."

Phyllis Baca of Baca Ranch said the lawsuit may bring attention to the PFAS problem, but she is similarly focused on what can help residents "in the present." She has gone door-to-door to dozens of neighbors' houses to spread information about PFAS and has been researching funding sources for water testing and filtration, she said.

Colón said he cannot predict what compensation residents could receive from the lawsuit, if it is successful.

"Can I guarantee [an outcome]? Absolutely not," he said. "Can I tell you that they're going to be in a position to participate in a national conversation that they wouldn't otherwise be in? Yeah, that's for sure going to happen."