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The battle over industrial water pollution in Alabama

Gigi Douban Apr 26, 2016
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A view of the Tennessee River, which a lawsuit contends has been contaminated with chemicals from a nearby 3M plant for decades. 
Max Wolfe/Flickr

Safe drinking water is an issue that’s been playing out not just in Flint, Michigan, but in cities from Parksburg, West Virginia, to Hoosick Falls, New York. And it’s a question many courts are taking on. Among the most recent dispute is in North Alabama, where residents and a water authority are suing 3M, maker of products from Scotchgard to Post-It Notes, in connection with chemical pollutants in the water supply.

The Environmental Protection Administration is expected to release new guidelines on safe levels of these chemicals this spring. Meanwhile, the fight is on over who might foot the bill if a cleanup is in order. 

Larry Watkins, 66, has lived near Decatur, all his life, as has most of his family. He’s got five acres, about a mile from the Tennessee River. A few months ago, Watkins went to the doctor and found he has high levels of PFOA and PFOS in his blood. Those are byproducts of chemicals created by 3M to make non-stick surfaces. Watkins’s levels? Three times what’s considered safe by the EPA. He also has high cholesterol that doesn’t seem to respond to medication.

For decades, 3M manufactured these compounds and discharged waste into the river. Now, lawyers representing Watkins and thousands of other customers of the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority say health issues ranging from cancer to high cholesterol are tied to elevated levels of these chemicals in the water. Carl Cole, an attorney in Decatur on the case, says all eyes are on the EPA.

“They have, for lack of a better term, guidelines that state how much of these chemicals can be exposed to over a short period of time,” Cole said. (The standard: 400 parts per trillion.)

Larry Watkins, at home near Decatur, Alabama. He lives about a mile from the Tennessee River, which a lawsuit contends has been contaminated with chemicals manufactured at a nearby 3M plant for decades.

But Cole said the issue for people here is long-term.  “Because these people who have to drink this water every day don’t have short term exposure to this,” he said. “They have long-term exposure to it. And that’s why we’re seeing levels that are four and five times what is the guideline acceptable amount through the EPA.” 

3M was the primary manufacturer of PFOS until it announced in 2000 that it would voluntarily phase out production. In a statement, 3M said that in years of medical testing, its employees have shown “no adverse health effects” as a result of exposure to PFOS or PFOA.

Several years ago, the company stopped making the chemicals at its Decatur facility. But the problem, many say,  is that these substances stay in the water supply. Don Sims, general manager of the water authority, said 600 million gallons of water are treated here each year. 

“We didn’t put the stuff in the water,” Sims said. “Whoever put it in the water should be required to clean it up. That’s it.”

Sims said levels of contaminants like the ones 3M discharged into the river years ago are still at times dangerously high. He’s worried that if the EPA issues more restrictive guidelines, the water won’t be considered safe to drink. Not without a very costly cleanup. 

“It would cost us somewhere between $20 million and $100 million to do a capital expenditure to clean that quart out of the water,” Sims said. 

That quart Sims is talking about? That’s about what these chemicals would amount to if you took all the water processed per year, and removed the bad parts. 

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