Nearly 7,000 join lawsuit on tainted Widefield water
Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - March 24, 2018 - Updated: April 6, 2018
A local lawyer says nearly 7,000 clients have joined a suit against the manufacturers of perfluorinated compounds that have contaminated wells for water users in Security, Widefield and Fountain.
Mike McDivitt said Thursday that he expects court hearings in July to decide whether the suit against firms including chemical giant 3M will move forward as a class-action. But one thing is already clear: Dozens of claimants who want compensation for sick pets are out of luck.
McDivitt said pets are considered property under Colorado law, limiting health-related claims for the animals.
He’s seeking a medical monitoring program for those who consumed tainted water from the Widefield aquifer and compensation for property owners who may see their land values dip because of the contamination. Perfluorinated compounds, commonly used in a firefighting foam that remained in military use until last year, have been tied to ailments including high cholesterol and some forms of cancer.
“Everyone who drank that water has been contaminated in one way or another,” McDivitt said. “They have the sword of Damocles hanging over them.”
Chemical companies named in the suit have strongly denied the allegations.
Contamination in the Widefield aquifer triggered alarm in 2016 after the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory citing high levels of perfluorinated compounds – some samples showed 1,000 times the safe level of the chemical.
Residents were told to stop drinking the aquifer water as water utilities installed filters and brought in water from other sources.
Another study tied the contamination to Peterson Air Force Base, which used the firefighting foam for decades, with runoff winding up in local wells.
While the Air Force last year admitted that foam releases at Peterson Air Force Base since the 1970s allowed the chemical to seep into the aquifer, the military isn’t named in the lawsuit. Suing the military is nearly impossible because of sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that blocks all but the rarest claims against the government.
With the federal path blocked, lawyers representing plaintiffs in several lawsuits have targeted the chemical manufacturers with claims that the polluted wells stem from the sale of a dangerous product.
The suits have been temporarily merged into a single mega-suit at federal District Court in Denver. The next step in the suit will determine if the plaintiffs can proceed as a group – heading to court with a class-action rather than thousands of individual cases.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is now mulling new rules for the chemicals, restricting the amount of the compound to 70 parts per trillion – that’s a shotglass of the substance divided between 2.1 million bathtubs full of water.
The Air Force has more studies in progress at Peterson on the contamination and cleanup efforts are expected to begin by 2020.
McDivitt, meanwhile, says his firm is wrapping up its efforts to sign up plaintiffs for the suit.
After the July hearings on whether the matter will move forward as a class-action, rapid progress isn’t expected.
It could be years before a legal conclusion is reached.
In the meantime, McDivitt said, those exposed to the chemicals will continue seeing harm. Studies have shown that perfluorinated compounds persist in the human body for decades after they have been ingested.
“Those compounds do not break down easily,” he said. “It will stay in their bodies forever.”