In an about-face, senators speed up approval of tainted water lawsuit

The Guam legislature reversed itself Wednesday, voting unanimously to approve Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero’s emergency bill to hire outside legal counsel to join roughly 100 other plaintiffs in a multi-district lawsuit against the manufacturers of manufacturers of polyfluoroalkyls, commonly referred to as PFAS chemicals. Image taken from the Legislature's YouTube channel

The Guam legislature reversed itself Wednesday, voting 14 to 0 to approve Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero’s emergency bill to hire outside legal counsel to join roughly 100 other plaintiffs in a multi-district lawsuit against the manufacturers of polyfluoroalkyls, commonly referred to as PFAS chemicals. The only senator who was unable to vote because of an excused absence is Sen. Mary Torres.

On Monday eight of the Legislature’s 10 Democratic senators voted against Bill 2 (1-S), preferring instead to hold a public hearing on the measure set for next Tuesday.

However, following nearly four hours of testimony heard in the Committee of the Whole this afternoon, all eight senators changed their minds and voted for the legislation which authorizes Attorney General Leevin Camacho to hire expert legal counsel to file a claim for damages to pay for the ongoing cost of monitoring and mitigating the contamination of the island’s drinking water.

The lawmakers who changed their minds were Sens. Régine Biscoe Lee, Kelly Marsh, Telena Nelson, Sabina Perez, Clynt Ridgell,  Joe San Agustin, Amanda Shelton and Therese Terlaje.

The governor is expected to sign the bill into law tonight at a town hall meeting at the Dededo Senior Citizens center.

PFAS chemicals are known as "forever chemicals" because they do not break down.

During this afternoon’s testimony, Miguel Bordallo, the general manager of the Guam Waterworks acknowledged that three of the island's 120 drinking water wells were shut down in 2015 after tests found traces of perfluorooctane sulfonate or PFOS in the water produced by those wells. PFOS is one of the many derivatives of PFAS chemicals.

Wells A-25 and A-23, both located in Hagåtña, have been disconnected and are no longer in production.

The third well, at the former Naval Air Station, or called NAS 1 in Tiyan, has since been restored to service after a treatment system was installed on it.

The treatment system, Bordallo said, has effectively blocked any detectable traces of the chemical from entering the island’s drinking water system.

“So I can drink a glass of water and there is no PFOS detected in that water, straight from the tap?” Nelson asked.

“That is correct,” responded Bordallo. “The water that we distribute in our distribution system does not have  any PFOS in it.”

Senators, however, were swayed by the ongoing costs of protecting the island’s drinking water from further exposure to the PFAS chemicals.

Bordallo said the treatment system installed on NAS 1 cost about $200,000 in material, manpower and equipment. The annual cost of keeping it up and running, he estimated, would be more than $100,000.

An additional $700,000 to $1 million would be necessary to install treatment systems on the other two wells that have been shut down.

Those costs could be recovered if GovGuam is successful in recovering damages by joining the multi-state lawsuit, the attorney general said.

The cost to GovGuam would be minimal, Camacho said. He estimated the cost to be a few hundred dollars for the filing fee.

The expert legal counsel would be hired on a contingency basis, meaning the law firm would be paid a percentage of whatever they were able to recover from the manufactures of the chemicals that caused the contamination.

“I am pleased with the outcome of the special session and vote to pass this bill,” Camacho said in a written statement following the vote. “We are ready to work and keep the upcoming process as transparent as possible.”