U.S. court ruling opens door to more suits over contaminated water supplies

Two families say they were exposed to toxic PFAS

  • Dana Bate, WHYY

After two years of legal setbacks, a federal court ruled this week that two families from Bucks and Montgomery counties can proceed with lawsuits asking the U.S. Navy to cover the costs of medical monitoring after years of drinking contaminated water.

“These people were seriously exposed to a toxic chemical and will benefit from medical monitoring that would enable them to get early detection of whatever adverse health consequences there were,” said Mark Cuker, attorney for Kristen, Charles, and Anthony Giovanni, who brought one of the lawsuits.

Both families live near former military bases, where the use of firefighting foam contaminated the groundwater with perfluorinated chemicals known as PFAS. The group of chemicals has been linked to health issues, including high cholesterol, thyroid problems, infertility, and an increased risk of cancer.

All told, some 70,000 residents in Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington townships have been exposed to contaminated water.

The Giovanni family, living across the street from the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station, filed suit in August 2016, claiming the water from their private well had a combined PFOA/PFOS level of 2.88 μg/L, well above the EPA’s threshold of 0.07 μg/L.

A year later, Dorothy Palmer and her son George, who have lived less than a mile from the Warminster Naval Air Warfare Center for 37 years, brought a similar suit. The water from their private well had a combined PFOA/PFOS level of 0.62 μg/L.

Both suits requested that the Navy provide funding for medical monitoring of the families’ health condition as a result of the toxic exposure. They also sought a large-scale health study to determine whether PFAS contamination caused unusual levels of illness in the community — and to what extent.

The lower U.S. District Court had ruled that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund program, protected the Navy from having to take action until it finished cleaning up the former bases. The bases were designated Superfund sites in 1997.

But this week, a three-judge panel from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned part of that decision, saying the lawsuit over medical monitoring could proceed because that relief does not interfere with or alter the ongoing cleanup efforts. That means the case goes back to the lower court, which must evaluate the facts of the case.

“The federal government is not immune from suit for medical monitoring,” Cuker said. “That is huge.”

Read more at whyy.org.