'Dark Waters' movie poses risk for 3M, analyst says

Key Points
  • "Dark Waters," a movie about an attorney's battle against chemical giant DuPont, could raise awareness of potentially toxic chemical use, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch said in a note to clients Wednesday.
  • The firm said that mining and manufacturing company 3M faces "risks from potential legislative action" that in a very extreme case could cost the company up to $102 billion.

The new movie "Dark Waters" may be about an attorney's battle against chemical company DuPont, but the film could shine a sharper spotlight on the industry in general, hurting companies like 3M, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch said on Wednesday.

The film, which hits theaters on Friday and stars Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, and Tim Robbins, is based on the true story of a Cincinnati-based corporate defense attorney who winds up representing West Virginia farmers who believe their cattle and crops were poisoned by toxic waste dumped by DuPont in local landfills.

The movie chronicles the 15-year battle that ensued — uncovering more than just cattle deaths along the way — which ultimately led to a class-action lawsuit and DuPont paying roughly $670 million to settle about 3,550 personal injury claims. The company, as well as Chemours which was also implicated, denied any wrongdoing.

A scene from the film Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo.
Source: Focus Features

The chemicals in focus are PFAS, or per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, which are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been used in the United States since 1940. They're now found in everything from clothing to drinking water to cooking wear to human bloodstreams, and they are known as "forever chemicals" since they don't biodegrade. This means that if they enter a water source, for example, the water will remain contaminated for decades after the initial interaction.

A growing body of research has highlighted the potentially serious health consequences from frequent and concentrated interaction, such as from drinking contaminated water.

"Dark Waters" was produced by Participant Media, which was also behind public-discourse sparking movies like "An Inconvenient Truth," "Food, Inc." and "Spotlight." And Bank of America said it could "raise public awareness of PFAS and increase pressure for legislative action."

3M is a mining and manufacturing company that deals in chemicals including PFAS compounds, so regulatory actions could hurt the company. So far this year 42 bills have been introduced that focus on PFAS, Bank of America said.

Focusing on the "PFAS Action Act," which would designate all PFAS compounds as "hazardous substances" and would therefore enforce strict cleanup of toxic waste sites, Bank of America said that 3M's strict cleanup liability could reach $1 billion, with total liability hitting $9 billion pre-tax once $8 billion from personal injury liabilities is added. In the firm's bear case scenario for the stock, the strict cleanup liability could reach as high as $102 billion, although the firm was quick to note that they think this "worst-case scenario is unlikely."

Under the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), known informally as Superfund, companies responsible for toxic waste sites must either perform the cleanup or reimburse the government for the necessary cleanup. So if the "PFAS Action Act" passes, all potentially responsible parties involved in PFAS contamination — which could include 3M — would be forced to foot the bill.

The US military's multibillion-dollar PFAS water contamination problem
The US military's multibillion-dollar PFAS water contamination problem

The Environmental Working Group estimates that in the United States there are 1,361 PFAS-contaminated sites.

The Bank of America analysts led by Andrew Obin noted that while they ultimately believe passage of the bill in its current form is "unlikely," a change in Senate control is a "political risk" for PFAS manufacturers.

Even if 3M is not held responsible under federal legislation, the firm said that "the company will likely face a large number of lawsuits from site owners and end-users," but that it will most likely be "manageable over time."

The firm has a neutral rating and a $175 target on the stock.

3M has addressed concerns over its use of PFAS compounds. "As part of 3M's philosophy and policy to continually improve its products and minimize their impact on the environment, the materials used by 3M have been tested and assessed to assure their safety for intended uses. In addition to providing this data to regulatory agencies, much of this data is publicly available," the company says on its website.

3M did not return a call for comment.

CNBC reached out to DuPont for a comment regarding the company's portrayal in "Dark Waters." The company provided the following statement:

"Safety, health and protecting the planet are core values at DuPont. We are – and have always been – committed to upholding the highest standards for the wellbeing of our employees, our customers and the communities in which we operate. As a science-based company, DuPont is innovating in all facets of our business – in our policies and protocols as well as our products. Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate.

"Although DuPont does not make the chemicals in question, we agree that further action needs to be taken. That's why we are leading the industry by supporting federal legislation and science-based regulatory efforts to address these chemicals. We also have announced a series of commitments around our limited use of PFAS, including the eliminating the use of all PFAS-based firefighting foams from our facilities and granting royalty-free licenses to those seeking to use innovative PFAS remediation technologies.

"Unfortunately, while seeking to thrill and entertain, this movie misrepresents things that happened years ago, including our history, our values and science. In some cases, the film depicts wholly imagined events. We have always – and will continue to – work with those in the scientific, not-for-profit and policy communities who demonstrate a serious and sincere desire to improve our health, our communities and our planet."

Editor's note: This report, originally published on Nov. 20, was updated with DuPont's statement on Nov. 22.

—CNBC's Michael Bloom contributed reporting.