The City of Zephyrhills — also known as “The City of Pure Water” — is joining a massive federal lawsuit regarding contaminated water.
The municipality is set to become a plaintiff in a multi-district litigation case filed against various companies that manufactured firefighting foams — Aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) — containing a series of man-made chemicals found to contaminate groundwater, wastewater and water wells.
The chemicals in question are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), compounds historically used in carpets, clothing, food packaging and a number of industrial processes. The chemicals have been linked to human health effects, such as low infant birth weights, immune system suppression, thyroid hormone disruption and cancer, according to health organizations, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Zephyrhills City Council unanimously voted on May 11 to enter negotiations for representation with Cossich, Summich, Parsiola and Taylor LLC., a New Orleans-based litigation firm. Local co-counsel will include Tampa-based firms Hobby & Hobby P.A. and Young & Partners LLP. The action came during a virtual council meeting.
Zephyrhills will join more than 100 other cities and water treatment facilities across the country in the lawsuit. Other plaintiffs are as far away as California and North Dakota, and within Florida, including Pensacola and Lauderhill.
The New Orleans firm is known for its work in securing a $7.8 billion settlement for plaintiffs in the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill case back in 2010. The firm told city leaders it will front the cost of litigation and expert work on a contingency, then would accept a settlement fee.
Officials say high levels of PFOA/PFOS have been discovered in Water Well No. 1 utilized by the city’s downtown fire station for training purposes, dating as far back as 2014.
Samples taken from the well in 2014 showed PFOA/PFOS levels of 160 parts per trillion in water, lower than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) levels of acceptability of 200 parts per trillion at the time, officials say.
However, in 2016 the EPA established new health advisory levels of PFOA/PFOS at just 70 parts per trillion. Because of that, the well was subsequently taken offline and was no longer in service when follow-up tests measured 120 parts per trillion of PFOA/PFOS, officials say.
Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe said that staff is working with environmental engineering group Jones Edmunds on monitoring wells and “to try to delineate contamination plume.”
Poe expects the EPA and Florida Department of Environmental Protection to make requirements for PFOA/PFOS remediation and removal, which he said “will have a very large price tag attached to it.”
City attorney Matt Maggard concurred with the city manager’s assessment. He emphasized the need to partner with the multiple litigation firms to seek damages from companies that used PFOS/PFAS chemicals in AFFF production.
Maggard put it like this: “Cleanup is coming, and it’s going to be very, very expensive, and I think we should protect the city and seek compensation from these companies. It’s really negligent what they did, in my opinion, as far as knowing the dangers of these chemicals and letting them go out into the public the way they did.”
Attorney Clarke Hobby, a partner in Hobby & Hobby P.A., originally brought the matter to the city’s attention.
A Dade City native who normally deals in real estate and land use matters, Hobby said he felt a calling to be involved and assist the municipality with the developing case.
The attorney said he believes the EPA will even further lower the levels of acceptability for PFOS/PFOA in water sources because “they’re finding that this stuff is not water soluble and it just doesn’t go away and it is a serious threat to water quality.”
Said Hobby, “I just don’t want Zephyrhills to get on the hook for what a multi-, multi-billion company knew about 40 years ago and continued to put it on the market, and leave us holding the bag.”
He added: “The liability for creating this chemical contamination should lie with the manufacturers who knew about this for a long time and allowed the contamination to continue over a longer period of time.”
Upon hearing comments from Hobby, as well as representatives from Cossich, Summich, Parsiola and Taylor LLC, and city administration, the council agreed it was important to move forward in the legal process.
“We definitely have to act on this,” said Council president Ken Burgess.
Councilman Charles Proctor added, “It sounds to me like we are going to deal with this, probably sooner rather than later, so if we’re going to hire a group of attorneys, we would want to hire a (law firm) that’s familiar with this sort of litigation.”
Published May 27, 2020