Court Grants Approval of “Game-Changing” Flushable Wipes Settlements on Behalf of Charleston Water System

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March 27, 2024

On March 8, 2024, Judge Richard M. Gergel of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina approved four settlements with six defendants – Costco Wholesale Corporation, CVS Health Corporation, The Procter & Gamble Company, Target Corporation, Walgreen Co., and Walmart Inc. – that will provide critical relief to municipal wastewater systems nationwide from the inundation of both flushable and non-flushable wipes.

Charleston’s Suit Against the Wipe Companies

Commissioners of Public Works of the City of Charleston (d.b.a. Charleston Water System) brought suit in January 2021 against major U.S. companies over damage and associated costs from clogs and backups allegedly caused by disposable wipes. Charleston Water was forced to take action after wipes caused major clogs at their Plum Island wastewater treatment plant, according to the suit. Charleston Water’s suit challenged the manufacturing, design, marketing, and sale of flushable wipes by Costco, CVS, Procter & Gamble, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart, among others, alleging that the wipes were labeled as “flushable” but were not suitable to be flushed.

Charleston Water’s suit was brought after an extensive pre-suit investigation beginning in November 2018, and sought injunctive relief to remedy costly and ongoing damage to plaintiff’s wastewater facilities due in significant part to the inability of defendants’ purportedly “flushable” wipes to break down and disperse sufficiently to pass through plaintiff and class members’ wastewater systems.

A “Vexing and Costly Problem”

Water treatment officials across the United States have noted that so-called “flushable wipes” do not dissolve, but accumulate inside sewage systems, resulting in large clogs. Consumers mistakenly believe that they dissolve upon flushing, perpetuating the need for regular, costly repairs to pipes, as The Post and Courier recently noted in discussing the Charleston Water settlements. In one key example, Charleston Water officials removed a 12-foot-long mass comprising in part of “flushable” wipes more than 90 feet down inside a sewage line, according to the suit. In 2019, Charleston Water again experienced a major clog due to flushable wipes, resulting in a warning to the public that the “flushable” labeling didn’t mean the wipes appropriately broke down before reaching the sewage system.

“Like us, wastewater systems nationwide were experiencing chronic, wipes-related blockages that were a constant strain on our operations and our budgets. These mislabeled and poorly performing products not only increased operating costs, but they also caused sewer overflows nationwide. With the chronic nature of the wipes problem, we had no choice but to file suit in order to ensure that wipes products are accurately and prominently labeled for consumers.  Where those products purport to be flushable, they need to pass the municipal flushability standard.  We knew this litigation would be tough and that the stakes were high for these international corporations.  We are extremely pleased with the cooperative settlements that were reached through the skilled work of our counsel.  These settlements, along with continued education of wipes to consumers, will ultimately bring significant benefits to wastewater utilities nationwide and their customers, while reinforcing the defendants’ commitments to being good corporate and environmental stewards. It’s a major step forward for us and the whole country in that respect,” said Mark Cline, Chief Executive Officer at Charleston Water. 

Relief Secured Through the Lawsuit

The settlements commit the defendants to meet an international flushability standard supported by the wastewater industry, with two years of confirmatory testing and non-flushable wipes labeling enhancements. The relief parallels similar benefits secured by Charleston Water in a first-of-its-kind settlement with Kimberly-Clark approved by the court in January 2022.

Together, these settlements cover products representing an outsized share of the flushable wipes market and will help reduce the accumulation of wipes in sewage systems, the expenses incurred to address wipes-related clogs, and the time-consuming and costly preventive measures necessary to mitigate future clogging.

In addition to the relief to wastewater system operators, the settlements will provide economic benefits to taxpayers, benefits to consumers in the form of product improvements and enhanced labeling, and benefits to the public by reducing the likelihood of residential plumbing clogs. The settlements will also help further the global adoption of uniform flushability standards. Plaintiff’s wastewater consultants have confirmed that industry participants in several countries are investing in developing products that meet the IWSFG flushability standards – the same standards (specifically, the PAS 3 disintegration test) defendants have agreed to meet here. Defendants’ commitments are further elevating those testing parameters as the international standard for flushability.

At a hearing held on March 8, 2024, Judge Gergel applauded the Charleston Water System for its approach to the litigation, stating, “I, frankly, commend the plaintiff[] on taking the path that had I think the greatest societal impact. If there had been a claim for damages . . . the differences would have been likely so great that a class resolution would have been very difficult to achieve. But the goal was not to turn backward but to look forward.”

“This was a mission-critical case for our client. And we knew that various, similar cases brought on behalf of sewage treatment plant operators seeking similar relief were dismissed. To secure the nationwide injunctive relief that we obtained here is an exceptional outcome, both for our client and for the class. I really want to tip my hat to our team and our client for their persistence and patience in obtaining this result,” said Samuel H. Rudman, counsel for Charleston Water.

Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP attorneys Samuel H. Rudman, Vincent M. Serra, and Francis P. Karam led the litigation team, along with co-class counsel AquaLaw PLC, on behalf of the plaintiff.

Commissioners of Public Works of the City of Charleston (d.b.a. Charleston Water System) v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, CVS Health Corporation, Kimberly-Clark Corporation, The Procter & Gamble Company, Target Corporation, Walgreen Co., and Wal-Mart, Inc., No. 2:21-cv-00042 (D.S.C.).

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