The 3M Co. allowed its industrial waste to be put in an illegal dump five miles from its Decatur plant, and toxins from the dump are leaking into groundwater, Fox Creek and ultimately the Tennessee River, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
John Sharp Jr. and Tammie Sharp, of Lawrence County 358 near Trinity, allege they discovered the dump on their property in 2017 when Tennessee Valley Authority workers were clearing timber in preparation for the installation of high-voltage lines. The defendants in the suit are 3M and its wholly owned subsidiary, Dyneon.
"It's just by happenstance this was discovered," said Decatur attorney Carl Cole, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. "TVA was doing some clearing and digging. They discovered it and someone realized what they had stumbled upon. They stopped immediately and contacted (the Alabama Department of Environmental Management)."
The complaint does not indicate when the chemicals were placed on the land, which the Sharps purchased in 2006. Cole said some of the containers were labeled "3M," and were dated in the 1980s and 1990s.
“The Sharps own approximately 20 acres of property, and the area where the defendants’ illegal open dump site is located is on the opposite end of their property from their residence,” according to the complaint. “The defendants’ illegal open dump is located at the bottom of a steep wooded ravine and was not otherwise visible to the Sharps.”
According to the lawsuit, the contents of the dump and surface water near the dump have tested positive for high levels of the industrial chemicals perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA), which the Sharps allege has contaminated surface water, groundwater, tributaries of Fox Creek and ultimately the river.
William Brewer III, a lawyer for 3M, said in an email Tuesday he was reviewing the claim.
“We are looking into this matter but believe 3M’s manufacturing and disposal practices were legally permitted at all times,” Brewer said. “3M has voluntarily worked with regulators and community stakeholders to address the environmental presence of PFCs and will do so, as necessary, going forward."
The lawsuit is one of many pending legal actions related to 3M Decatur’s disposal of the two chemicals, which are part of a family of chemicals referred to as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs.
In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory indicating that even trace amounts of the two chemicals in drinking water — as little as 70 parts per trillion over a lifetime of exposure — presented potential health risks, including certain types of cancer, thyroid problems, and immune system effects.
3M and Dyneon no longer use PFOA or PFOS in the manufacturing process.
“Based on the markings of containers found in the illegal dump on the Sharp property and other constituents in the waste materials found in the illegal dump, 3M was the generator of, and either disposed of or arranged for the disposal of, wastes containing PFOA and PFOS on the Sharp property,” according to the complaint.
The full size of the dump is unknown, Cole said, because some of it is buried.
The complaint alleges ADEM has confirmed the dump was never permitted and is illegal. ADEM spokeswoman Lynn Battle confirmed Tuesday the agency is investigating the matter.
The Sharps allege 3M long has known of the toxic properties of the chemicals.
“For instance, a 1979 3M study of the effects of fluorochemical compounds on Rhesus monkeys was terminated after 20 days because all of the monkeys, at all dosage levels, died as a result of exposure to the fluorochemicals,” according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs claim 3M waited 21 years before publicly acknowledging a “new study” of the effects on the monkeys, which it offered as one reason it was pulling the consumer anti-stick product Scotchgard off the market. The company also warned in 1986 that PFOA should be disposed of only through incineration or at lined landfills for hazardous chemicals, according to the complaint.
“With respect to the lawsuit’s claims about PFCs, 3M does not believe the chemistries in question present harm to human health at levels they are typically found in the environment,” Brewer said.
Cole said it is not clear whether 3M actually dumped the materials on the Sharps' property, but the company is responsible for cleaning it up.
"There's only two plausible explanations," Cole said. "The first is that it was dumped there directly by 3M, which is probably not the most likely. The second is they contracted with a third party to take it and dispose of it somewhere, and this is where that company put it. They're responsible (under federal law) either way, simply because it's their material that's out there."