A federal lawsuit filed Friday against 3M and other companies claims the companies released harmful chemicals into the Tennessee River, and claims the chemicals can be found in the drinking water of thousands of area water customers.
The federal lawsuit filed Friday by West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority and three residential water customers asks for at least $5 million, an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, and any other awards that a federal jury deems appropriate.
The lawsuit names 3M Co. and its subsidiary, Dyneon LLC, and Daikin America Inc. as defendants.
The Water Authority and the residents claim the companies were negligent and reckless by releasing toxic chemicals, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfate (PFOS), which found their way into the river and eventually their drinking water.
The chemicals are used to make nonstick coatings.
An attorney for 3M said the lawsuit’s claims are without merit.
3M is confident its actions in Alabama are a credit to its record of responsible environmental stewardship, said William A. Brewer, of Dallas.
“Needless to say, 3M believes these claims lack merit,” Brewer said. “Although these types of lawsuits capture headlines, it is important to remember they are often based on groundless allegations. 3M believes there has been no harm to plaintiffs’ property due to the mere environmental presence of these materials.”
Brewer said 3M’s use of the materials “was legal and fully permitted.”
Decatur attorney Carl Cole, an attorney from Birmingham and two attorneys from Asheville, North Carolina, filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court’s Northeastern Division of the Northern District of Alabama on Friday afternoon.
Cole said the lawsuit is the “most well researched, scientifically sound case” he’s ever worked on and will let it speak for itself.
“If these chemicals are not harmful, then why did they stop using them?” Cole asked. “There was a time years ago when cigarette lawyers and executives claimed their product was actually good for you as well.”
The lawsuit claims that 3M discharged wastewater containing the chemicals from its treatment plant into Bakers Creek, which flows into the Tennessee River, and into Decatur Utilities’ Dry Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Processed wastewater from Dyneon containing the chemicals was managed through 3M’s treatment plant and discharged into the creek and Decatur Utilities plant, the lawsuit claims.
Daikin discharges sanitary wastewater containing PFOA and PFOS and other chemicals into the Decatur Utilities plant, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs claim the three companies disposed of waste and sludge containing the chemicals in area landfills, and the chemicals are in leachate from the landfills that gets into the groundwater. Decatur Utilities accepts leachate from the landfills, but its plant is not set up to filter out PFOA and PFOS.
The lawsuit comes a week after the announcement by nonprofit Tennessee Riverkeeper that it intends to file a federal lawsuit against 3M, Decatur, Decatur Utilities and
BFI Waste Systems regarding the same issues.
A pending lawsuit involving the same chemicals in Morgan County Circuit Court names Decatur, Decatur Utilities, Morgan County, BFI and other Decatur industries as defendants. The lawsuit was filed by Darden Bridgeforth and Sons Land Co., Hillsboro Gin Co. and Hamilton Farms.
The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority claims that unacceptable levels of PFOA and PFOS were found in water samples collected in 2005 and 2006, and that it began testing for the chemicals in 2009. The tests have consistently found PFOA levels at or near .1 parts per billion and PFOS levels at .19 parts per billion, which is near the .2 parts per billion advisory level for short-term exposure issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the lawsuit said.
The authority’s source for water is an intake on the Tennessee River about 13 miles downstream from 3M, the lawsuit said.
West Morgan-East Lawrence is asking for $75,000 as compensation for property damage, lost use of property and related expenses.
The authority sells water to water departments in Vinemont, Falkville, Trinity, Town Creek and the West Lawrence Water Cooperative.
Plaintiffs Ottis and Magen Sparks, of Danville, and Theresa Poludniak, of Trinity, are West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority customers. They are asking that the court certify all water customers of the authority and of the water departments to which it sells water as a class.
The lawsuit claims more than 25,000 people are members of the class.
Blood samples taken in 2013 of 121 of the proposed class members found elevated PFOA levels, the lawsuit said. The levels are sufficient to cause health problems such as cancer, immunotoxicity, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit notes that the state has placed part of Wheeler Reservoir on the state’s impaired waters list for PFOS contamination and issued a fish consumption advisory for parts of the reservoir based on PFOS levels found in fish samples.
The EPA has not established a limitation on PFOA emissions, but has issued a recommended limit on PFOS and PFOA levels that are safe in drinking water, in the short term.
Not a health threat
Dr. Carol Ley, a 3M vice president and corporate medical director, has said the company does not believe PFOA and PFOS are a health threat to humans in levels typically found in the environment or in human blood. She said the company has not found any adverse health effects in 3M employees who worked with the chemicals in more than 30 years of observation.
3M learned of the widespread presence of perfluorinated compounds such as PFOA and PFOS in the late 1990s, but said they were not a health hazard at normal levels. The company announced in 2000 that it would phase out production of the compounds.
The Decatur plant does not produce PFOA or PFOS.
3M said it has worked with the EPA and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to reduce or eliminate the presence of the chemicals at the plant and in the Decatur area. Remediation began in 2006 and will continue through 2019, the company said.