Board members of the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority expressed anger at what they see as a decision foisted on them by upstream industries: Take action that could raise rates by $20 per month or provide customers with deficient drinking water?
At a work session Thursday, most board members indicated they were prepared to authorize General Manager Don Sims to begin the process of borrowing $25 million for an advanced reverse osmosis (R-O) filtration system that would remove 18 man-made industrial chemicals from Tennessee River water, many of which are not being removed by an existing carbon filtration system.
“We’re put in this position not because of something this board has done or this water authority has done,” board member Barry Stephens said. “We’re doing this because of what industry has done to our community. That’s what really bothers me to the core. We’re having to react and do the right thing to clean up the mess that industry has brought upon us. It’s a great thing we have jobs out here, but at what cost?”
Stephens said customers would get stuck with the bill when the authority finances a reverse osmosis system, absent what he called a “miracle.” The water authority serves about 53,000 people.
The miracle Stephens was referring to is a settlement with or judgment against 3M Co. The authority has a pending lawsuit against the company that alleges its Decatur plant for years produced and dumped perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). The chemicals, according to federal agencies, are associated with kidney and testicular cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, increases in cholesterol, thyroid disease, decreased response to vaccines, asthma, decreased fertility and decreased birth weight.
In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an advisory warning of the possible health hazards from long-term ingestion of drinking water with levels of the chemicals above 70 parts per trillion. The authority’s drinking water, drawn from the Tennessee River 16 miles downstream of Decatur industries, was above that level at the time. The EPA and state health officials recommended that pregnant and breast-feeding mothers avoid the water and that the water not be used in baby formula.
In response, Sims issued a no-drink order and immediately began construction of a $4 million carbon filtration system, now in use, which effectively removes PFOA and PFOS from drinking water. It does not, however, remove many related per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are under increasing scrutiny by the EPA and researchers.
Daikin America Inc., another defendant in the authority’s lawsuit, recently agreed to a $4 million settlement that will pay off the debt incurred in building the carbon system. Sims always has described the system as temporary, in part because it does not remove many industrial chemicals and because it's expensive to maintain.
Some board members on Thursday raised the question of whether the authority should hold off on a reverse osmosis system until the 3M litigation settles or goes to trial. Sims responded that another lawsuit against 3M on a related issue has been pending for 12 years.
“Do we want to wait 12 years to build it?” Sims said. “It takes three years (to finance and build a reverse osmosis system) from the day the board says, ‘Do it.’ Management-wise, I can’t sit here and say we’re going to wait on a settlement. It’s not going to be the cheapest water until we get a settlement — if we get a settlement.”
Asked whether increasing debt and raising rates to pay debt service was financially viable, Sims said board members would have to answer that question.
“You either drink contaminated water or you don’t. Which one is viable?” Sims said. “Initially, it’s going to have to be the customer who has to pay for it. Is safe drinking water viable? That’s the question you’re going to have to answer.”
Board member Mark Clark pointed out that the water meets applicable regulations and health advisories, and that the authority would not be alone in having to react if the EPA issues health advisories on PFAS not removed by the carbon filtration system.
Sims said there are indications more health advisories are forthcoming on chemicals that the carbon system will not remove. If such an advisory is issued, Sims said, the three-year lead time on building a reverse osmosis system would put the authority and its customers in an untenable position.
“Do we wait until it becomes a problem, or do we address the problem now and have it solved when it does happen?” Sims said. “Because it’s going to happen.”
Clark said he was concerned about how customers would react to the increased debt and the possibility of a future rate increase.
“I think our customers know … that the only way you can clean all these different chemicals from the water that we’re dealing with today is with an R-O system,” Stephens said. “It’s a significant investment, but it will provide the best water we can to our customers. I think the vast majority of our customers trust what this board and what our general manager are doing to meet that goal.”
Stephens and Sims said many customers are now drinking bottled water.
“Is it worth $20 to the average customer out there to have safe drinking water? I would dare say they are paying more than that on bottled water, if they’re drinking bottled water,” Sims said.
Board member Edward Kirby said he struggles with the idea of forcing Lawrence County customers to pay for a problem they did not cause.
“There ain’t no income in Lawrence County,” Kirby said. “A whole bunch of the good jobs in Lawrence County are something like working at the nursing home or getting a good job at the Dollar General store. I can’t keep seeing trying to squeeze the turnip a little more.”
Sims agreed that a rate increase, if necessary, would be hard on customers.
“My board has been put in a position they can’t win by the industries dumping in the river and the regulatory people allowing them to dump this in the river,” Sims said. “They still have not set a limit on what (PFAS) can be dumped in the river. They’re using our river for sewage, the industries are. Then regulators point their finger at us and say it’s our responsibility to get out what the industries put in.”
In addition to direct customers, the authority sells water to V.A.W. Water Systems in the Vinemont area, Falkville Water Works, Trinity Water Works, Town Creek Water System and the West Lawrence Water Cooperative.