Sometimes fighting a fire takes more than water.
Firefighters across New Jersey — particularly those working on military bases and at airports — use a special type of foam which smothers fires that water would be otherwise ineffective against. The foam is called aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF).
Not all AFFF products are the same, but for decades many of them were made with toxic chemicals known as PFOS and PFOA (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid) that today are being found in drinking water systems across the Garden State. Exposure to the chemicals can have a wide range of effects, including an increased risk of developing cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Now, New Jersey wants the companies that made and sold the toxic foam to pay up.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal joined New Jersey Department of Environmental Commissioner Catherine McCabe and Acting New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Director Paul Rodriguez on Tuesday in announcing a new lawsuit against companies that made and sold the firefighting foam for decades.
The companies, the lawsuit alleges, knew about the harmful effects of the chemical and used it anyway, leading to the toxic pollution of New Jersey’s environment. Several of the companies named have denied any wrongdoing.
“The corporations we’re suing today knew full well the health and environmental risks associated with this foam, and yet they sold it to New Jersey’s firefighters anyway,” Grewal said. “Their conduct was unconscionable, and we’re going to hold these companies accountable.”
There are eight companies are named in the new lawsuit: The 3M Company; Tyco Fire Products LP; Chemguard, Inc.; Buckeye Fire Equipment Company; Kidde-Fenwal, Inc.; National Foam, Inc.; E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company; The Chemours Company.
In a statement, 3M strongly denied any of the wrongdoing alleged by the state.
“3M acted responsibly in connection with its manufacture and sale of AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship,” said Fanna Haile-Selassie, a spokeswoman for 3M.
Johnson Controls, the conglomerate that owns Tyco and Chemguard, said in a statement that it has always acted in a responsible manner in producing firefighting foams, and that it will vigorously defend itself in this lawsuit.
“We make our foams to exacting military standards, and the U.S. military and civilian firefighters have depended for decades on these foams to extinguish life-threatening fires,” said Fraser Engerman, a spokesman for the company. “They continue to use them safely and reliably for that purpose today.”
David Rosen, a spokesman for Chemours, said the company was caught off guard by the lawsuit.
“We are puzzled by the Attorney General’s actions,” said David Rosen, a Chemours spokesman who said that the company had just learned of the lawsuit. “Chemours does not manufacture, formulate or sell firefighting foam and does not use PFOS or PFOA in the production of any of its products.”
None of the other named companies immediately responded to requests for comment.
In the lawsuit, the state is seeking natural resource damages as well as other penalties. Natural resource damages include the costs required to fully investigate AFFF contamination in the state, and payment for the costs of remediating the affected natural resources.
This marks the tenth lawsuit filed by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration that seeks natural resource damages since January 2018.
The lawsuit also includes product liability claims, negligence and creating a public nuisance. The state is also seeking economic and consequential damages, including punitive damages, for the defendants’ alleged conduct in causing statewide PFOS and PFOA contamination.
Finally, the state is bringing claims under the Consumer Fraud Act based on “the defendants’ deceptive and fraudulent business practices” in the sale of AFFF to state entities, counties, municipalities, and local fire departments.
New Jersey is alleging that the companies are responsible for “vast quantities” of the foam running off from fuel spills, firefighting events and routine training sessions entering New Jersey’s environment. The problem chemicals in the foam are extremely long-lasting.
Dominick Marino, the president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, said that his union has been fighting for the discontinuation of firefighting foams that have PFAS. Marino said that while most municipal fire departments in the state no longer use the foam in question, firefighters on military bases remain at risk.
“The military bases here in New Jersey, which we have plenty of, have been using [the foam] for a real long time and are continuing to use it because of the stockpiles of the stuff that the government has,” Marino said.
PFOA and PFOS are are part of a family of chemicals that are classified as “PFAS” (polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances). According to the Centers for Disease Control, the health effects of PFAS exposure range from increased risk of cancer to stunting the growth of children. Exposure to these chemicals, which have been used to manufacture everything from nonstick cook-wear and stain-resistant carpets to cosmetics, is even linked to lower chances of pregnancy in affected women.
The NJDEP said that its investigation into AFFF use in New Jersey remains ongoing, but four problem sites have been identified in the complaint: Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County; Naval Weapons Station Earle in Monmouth County; the former Naval Air Warfare Center in Trenton; and the Federal Aviation Administration Technical Center in Atlantic County.
According to the complaint, NJDEP sampling has found “elevated levels” of PFOA and PFOS in the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority’s surface water reservoirs, which are located on FAA Technical Center property. The Atlantic City MUA serves drinking water to more than 150,000 people, according to the NJDEP.
The complaint also names three bodies of water near Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst — Little Pine Lake, Mirror Lake and Pine Lake — as having been contaminated by the chemicals. The NJDEP has issued “Do Not Eat” advisories for all three after find high levels of PFOS in fish living in the lakes.
In March, a separate lawsuit filed by the state Attorney General’s Office targeted DuPont and 3M, accusing the companies of PFAS pollution in Middlesex County and Salem County.
Earlier that month, the NJDEP issued a directive to five companies — Chemours, Dow DuPont, DuPont, Solvay and 3M — that required each to disclose all information related to their use and discharge of PFAS chemicals in New Jersey. The directive also held the companies financially responsible for the remediation and treatment of PFAS-related contamination in the state. The companies have since all responded to the directive by telling the state that they do not intend to pay for any cleanup beyond their own facilities.
The NJDEP is currently in the process of establishing drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS. A proposal was made in April, and a public hearing on the proposed standards is scheduled for Wednesday in Trenton. Last September, New Jersey became the first state to set drinking water standards for another member of the PFAS family, perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA).