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Top Legal Innovations 2021: Lathrop GPM

PFAs team - Lathrop GPM

Lathrop GPM’s PFAs team core members. Top row, from left: Bill Beck; Ally Cunningham; Matt Walker. Middle row, from left: Sarah Lintecum; Jessie Rosell; Cynthia Teel. Bottom row, from left: Bill Ford; Mara Cohara (PGL); David Shorr

PFAs Team

New regulations concerning the presence of PFAS in drinking water could soon be flowing from the Biden administration.

In October, the White House announced a plan to reduce contamination from Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds in the country’s air, water and food.

“Biden’s ‘Bold’ PFAS Regulation Plan Puts Companies on Notice,” read one headline.

“We’re hearing about it more and more at different sites and different companies, and the EPA regulations are coming fast and furious down the pipeline,” said Allyson Cunningham, a partner at Lathrop GPM who is part of a group of attorneys that advises and represents companies in matters related to PFAS regulatory compliance, remediation, reporting and litigation avoidance.

PFAS are a group of chemicals used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water and can be found in clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging and heat-resistant, non-stick cooking surfaces, among other substances, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scientists describe them as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment and as such, end up in drinking water sources, fish and wildlife.

The CDC reports that elevated levels of PFAS could lead to health issues such as increased risk of high blood pressure or risk of kidney cancer, though the agency also stated that “scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposures to mixtures of different PFAS.”

The Lathrop GPM attorneys started working on PFAS issues more than a decade ago as part of its environmental law work on behalf of companies. That effort included toxic tort litigation, regulatory work, citizen suits and voluntary cleanups, according to the firm.

In addition to the developments at the federal level, some states have also recently introduced regulations concerning the allowable concentrations of PFAS in drinking water.

As regulations evolved, Lathrop GPM started training more attorneys to work on PFAS issues.

“It became apparent to us that we are at the leading edge of something that was going to get much, much larger, as it has,” said Bill Beck, a partner with Lathrop GPM, which has offices across the country, including in St. Louis, Kansas City and Jefferson City.

The firm is defending  a state court putative class action filed by residents of Alabama’s Morgan County and a lawsuit filed by an environmental group alleging contamination of plaintiffs’ properties and the environment with its manufacturing and disposal of PFAS. The firm is also defending a related RCRA citizen suit claiming environmental damage to a river, and a related mass tort personal injury and property damage case with thousands of named plaintiffs.

“You can always defend a lawsuit to a conclusion and spend millions of dollars winning, or you can spend millions of dollars and have some risk,” said Beck. “What we look for is an opportunity to craft a solution that would address the community problem in a way that all stakeholders thought was really helpful.”

The firm is now keeping abreast of developments related to federal regulations. In addition to the involvement of the CDC and EPA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Defense are also working on PFAS matters.

The firm had delivered webinars for companies that could be affected by the regulations.

“After our last one, which was focused on food, someone said it was one of the most informational and detailed presentations that touched on everything that is happening” related to PFAS, said Cunningham. “Having a firm that can digest all that information and give it to you an understandable format is difficult, and we are doing a great job at it.”

The POWER List: Environmental and Energy Law 2022