In this Dec. 20, 2020, file photo, Attorney General Aaron Frey waves to state senators at the Augusta Civic Center. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine filed lawsuits against 3M and DuPont de Nemours, Inc. on Wednesday, with the attorney general saying the companies introduced so-called forever chemicals “in pursuit of profit for shareholders.”

The long-planned move by Attorney General Aaron Frey follows a patchwork of lawsuits here and in other states aimed at the makers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems. PFAS are increasingly being found in consumer products, agricultural land and water in Maine and across the country.

The lawsuits mirror those in other parts of the U.S. by citing evidence that the companies knew the chemicals were toxic decades ago but continued to sell products containing them. They are facing staggering liabilities and some have generated large awards. But it will be a difficult legal path, with DuPont already citing a complex merger as one potential shield.

“The defendant manufacturers have willfully introduced toxic chemicals into Maine’s environment in pursuit of profit for shareholders,” Frey said in a statement.

Frey’s office filed two separate lawsuits in a Portland state court seeking to recover all costs of Maine’s response to the emerging public health crisis. The response has included testing of farmland that was treated with contaminated wastewater sludge, as well as the nation’s first ban on sludge spreading and a world-first ban on PFAS in most products taking effect in 2030.

Both lawsuits claim public nuisance, trespass, liability and negligence. The companies have a history manufacturing PFAS and related chemicals, much of which was publicized in a landmark lawsuit by a West Virginia farmer who lived near a DuPont plant. It was settled in 2004.

By 1961, DuPont knew the chemicals were toxic to animals. Two babies born in 1981 to employees at a company plant had facial deformities similar to those 3M observed in rats. The companies concealed evidence that the chemicals were in water supplies and produce.

Frey’s filing also contemplated DuPont’s merger with the fellow chemical giant Dow that finished in 2017. It resulted in the brand being split into another company. The merger included a “multi-step scheme” to shield assets from creditors in violation of securities laws, Frey alleges.

DuPont alluded to the merger in a statement responding to the lawsuit by saying the current iteration “has never manufactured” forever products or firefighting foam. The historic company agreed to a federal request to phase them out in 2006.

“While we don’t comment on litigation matters, we believe these complaints are without merit, and we look forward to vigorously defending our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship,” DuPont said.

3M announced plans in December to end PFAS manufacturing by 2025. In a statement, the company said it “acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS” and defended firefighting foam containing the chemicals by saying it served a critical need.

“3M will continue to remediate PFAS and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate,” the statement said.

PFAS are used in the manufacturing of nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, grease-resistant products and firefighting foams and are called forever chemicals because they neither break down in bodies nor nature. Despite their health risks, they were still part of a $2 billion industry in 2018, according to one estimate.

There were 6,400 lawsuits filed on PFAS in federal courts between 2005 and 2022, Bloomberg News reported last year. DuPont was the biggest target at first, but 3M was sued with nearly as much frequency beginning in 2020 and could face up to $30 billion in total liabilities because it both made PFAS and sold finished products with the chemicals in them.

Minnesota won an $850 million settlement in 2018 from 3M in a long-running lawsuit similar to Maine’s. More than a dozen other states filed similar lawsuits by September 2022, a Pew Charitable Trusts news site reported. The Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan was the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed in 2021 alleging it caused local PFAS contamination.

Lawmakers authorized Frey in 2021 to hire outside lawyers and pay them by using funds from an eventual settlement. The state hired Massachusetts-based Seeger Weiss LLP and Grant & Eisenhofer P.A. of Delaware to handle the case. Legal fees and other costs took up $130 million from Minnesota’s agreement with 3M.

Frey previewed the lawsuits in a speech at the Maine Democratic Party convention last May and announced them on Wednesday with Gov. Janet Mills’ support and advocates on the issue.

“Maine has been at the forefront in dealing with the PFAS crisis, spending millions of dollars for testing and cleanup,” Sarah Woodbury, the advocacy director at Defend Our Health, a group that fights toxic chemicals, said in a statement. “It is about time that those responsible are held accountable.”

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...