Maine’s largest water district has filed a lawsuit against DuPont, 3M and other manufacturers of so-called forever chemicals to hold them responsible for the cost of testing and treating polluted wastewater.

“Protecting public health, safety and the environment is (our) top priority,” said General Manager Seth Garrison. “By taking legal action against manufacturers of PFAS, Portland Water District is holding accountable those responsible for pollution.”

The district has hired SL Environmental Law Group of New Hampshire to handle its legal complaint. The case will be heard in a South Carolina federal court along with similar suits brought by the York and Bangor sewer districts, the Brunswick & Topsham Water District and dozens of other U.S. water utilities.

According to its contract, the law firm will get 25% of compensation if it wins, but nothing if it loses.

The Portland Water District’s four wastewater treatment facilities – which serve 200,000 residents in Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Gorham, Portland, Westbrook and Windham – report between 15 and 32 parts per trillion of reportable forever chemicals in the wastewater they discharge into Maine waters.

The district board unanimously voted to go to court in March – Scott Firmin, the district’s director of wastewater services, said the high cost of managing PFAS uncertainties made it an easy call – but it has taken months to get on the docket in a court system drowning in PFAS lawsuits.


The state of Maine has covered most PFAS testing costs for the district’s water and wastewater system, but the district and its member towns have had to cover the increased cost of disposing of PFAS-laden sewage sludge. Disposal costs have doubled, from $1.6 million to $3.2 million, over the last three years.

Portland has just signed a contract with an engineering firm to develop a regional biosolids treatment facility proposal that could handle the district’s 60 tons of daily sludge, plus the 60 tons produced daily by the rest of southern Maine. Project cost estimates range between $150 million to $250 million.

Portland Water District’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility. Staff Photo

Any compensation received from this lawsuit could help jumpstart that regional project, Firmin said.

Federal regulators have said they plan to set regulatory limits on forever chemical levels in wastewater but have yet to issue a proposal. Exposure to even trace amounts of some forever chemicals has been linked to deadly cancers, liver and heart problems, and immune and developmental damage to children.

The Portland Water District filed its legal complaint in the U.S. District Court in South Carolina against 18 companies that designed, manufactured, marketed, distributed and sold six toxic forever chemicals. It alleges the companies knew or should have known the chemicals posed a public health threat.

The companies used these chemicals to make products such as Teflon, a type of spray-on plastic used to create a non-stick surface; Scotchgard, a coating used to make fabric waterproof; aqueous firefighting foams; and coatings used to make products highly resistant to high heat, water and grease.


Once released into the environment, these chemicals eventually wind up in the district’s sewer system, sometimes in the leachate collected from landfills that accept products containing PFAS and sometimes from residential sewage. Much of that PFAS winds up as sludge the district must pay to landfill.

While every district is different, PFAS sampling shows most of the forever chemicals running through the Portland Water District’s East End facility come from its residential neighborhoods, not industrial producers, Firmin said. Residential makes up about 80% of Portland’s incoming wastewater.


The district is asking the court to order the defendants to reimburse it for the costs of investigating, monitoring, containing and abating the PFAS-related contamination of its wastewater system, including the cost of treating and disposing of the PFAS-contaminated sludge.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently set strict federal limits on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in drinking water. However, the PFAS levels in Portland Water District’s drinking water supply are so low that they can’t be detected by current lab technology.

The Brunswick & Topsham Water District, however, has detected forever chemicals above the federal drinking water standards in 24 of the 100 wells it draws from to supply about 18,000 homes and businesses in the two communities. Its complaint focuses on the chemicals used to make firefighting foam.

Forever chemicals can be filtered out of drinking water using granulated charcoal, membrane filters or other costly filtration or treatment systems. Firmin said sewer plant operators have yet to find a way to remove PFAS from wastewater, which is full of material that would clog regular filters.

To get a sense of the challenge, Firmin cited a Minnesota government study comparing manufacturing and extraction costs. While it can cost up to $1,000 to make a pound of PFAS, it would cost $12 million to $18 million to remove a pound of that same chemical from commercial wastewater.

“That’s the challenge we’re looking at as a society,” Firmin said. “It’s staggering in cost and complexity.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story