Even as 3M Co. was arguing that a costly reverse osmosis filtration plant was unnecessary for a water authority downstream from its Decatur plant, it was violating an EPA order by discharging a chemical into the river that can only efficiently be removed with reverse osmosis technology.
In January, 3M was in the midst of settlement negotiations over a lawsuit filed against it by West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority. WMEL general manager Don Sims had long insisted that the settlement should cover the cost of a reverse osmosis plant, which would remove more than just the nonstick “forever chemicals,” once used in products like ScotchGard and Teflon, and whose toxic properties have been established through extensive research. WMEL had already installed a carbon filtration plant for its Tennessee River intake, which was effectively removing PFOA and PFOS at a much lower cost than reverse osmosis.
“As West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority has said, the water that it provides customers is dramatically below any applicable EPA drinking water health advisory levels, and the existing granulated activated carbon treatment system is sufficient to meet those standards,” 3M spokeswoman Fanna Haile-Selassie said Jan. 18 in a statement to The Daily. “Apart from the fact that a reverse osmosis system is not required, serious questions exist whether that system is appropriate or cost-effective."
But Sims wanted a system that would remove the hundreds of lightly researched replacement chemicals that 3M and other industries began manufacturing after, under pressure from the EPA, they phased out PFOA and PFOS. He succeeded April 23, when 3M agreed to settle the case for $35 million, enough to cover the cost of building a reverse osmosis plant.
PFOA and PFOS are part of a growing family of man-made chemicals characterized by nearly indestructible bonds between carbon and fluorine. The chemical family is referred to as PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
PFOA and PFOS are long-chain PFAS compounds, meaning they have at least eight fluorine-carbon bonds. Long-chain PFAS are more easily filtered from drinking water than short-chain PFAS, but research suggests they also have a greater tendency to accumulate in the body. Extensive research on long-chain PFAS has found probable links between the chemicals and health conditions including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and infertility.
In an effort to find replacement chemicals that shared the nonstick and stain-resistant properties of toxic long-chain PFAS, companies began developing short-chain PFAS. While they share many chemical properties with their long-chain siblings, some research suggests they leave the body more quickly and are thus less toxic. Other research suggests they have many of the same health effects as the long-chain PFAS they replaced.
3M's chemical release
Enter FBSA and FBSEE, short-chain PFAS that 3M has been manufacturing at its Decatur plant. In 2009, prior to beginning the manufacturing process, 3M entered into a consent order with the Environmental Protection Agency pursuant to the Toxic Substances Control Act. The consent order authorized 3M to manufacture the chemicals, but prohibited the company from releasing the chemicals “into waters of the United States.”
On April 3, 3M sent a letter to the EPA, a copy of which was filed the following day with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
“Through self-investigation, 3M has discovered that the Decatur plant has released FBSA and may have released FBSEE from its manufacturing operations to the Tennessee River in non-compliance with the consent order’s release to water provision,” wrote Adam Kushner, a Washington, D.C., lawyer representing 3M.
“Due to these concerns, 3M has ceased both its FBSA and FBSEE manufacturing operations at its Decatur plant as well as any associated waste stream releases from those operations.”
3M refused to answer numerous questions from The Decatur Daily about the amount of the release, the time period of the release, or the toxicity of the chemicals.
“We are sharing the following statement at this time,” Haile-Selassie said Thursday. “3M voluntarily reported to EPA and ADEM releases from our manufacturing processes that did not comply with the Toxic Substance Control Act. We shut down the identified manufacturing operations and are completing internal changes to fully address the issue. 3M takes seriously its environmental compliance obligations and is continuously assessing its performance against such obligations.”
Also on Thursday, West Morgan-East Lawrence held a prebid conference for qualified contractors interested in building a $30 million reverse osmosis plant to replace the carbon filtration system WMEL has had since 2016. Sims said the authority is on track to have the plant built and operational by December 2020.
Sims said WMEL received no notification of 3M’s release of FBSA and FBSEE from the company, from ADEM or from the EPA. The authority first heard of the release when it found Kushner’s letter had been filed with ADEM.
ADEM spokeswoman Lynn Battle said Friday that the agency is coordinating with the EPA in evaluating 3M's chemical release.
"After evaluation of all relevant information regarding this release, the Department will then make a decision regarding necessary enforcement," Battle said.
While the reverse osmosis plant will come too late to filter out the FBSA and possibly FBSEE that 3M has now acknowledged it released into the river, scientists say it’s the most effective filtration method for any future releases.
“Based on what we know, reverse osmosis should be effective in removing these and other short-chain compounds. Reverse osmosis is pretty much a catch-all for these contaminants, so that would be very effective,” said David Andrews, senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
Whether WMEL’s existing carbon filters would remove FBSA and FBSEE is less clear.
“The carbon filters do not work as well with these replacement chemicals because of their shorter length. Reverse osmosis is the go-to, but it’s incredibly expensive,” Andrews said.
Sims last week said WMEL has not been testing for FBSA or FBSEE, but it has been testing for about two dozen other short-chain PFAS. Pilot programs on two reverse osmosis systems removed them all, he said, but the carbon filtration has been less effective.
“What we’ve discovered on the carbon filtration is the slower that you run water through the carbon, the more efficient that it is,” he said. “There’s where the problem comes in using carbon filtration as a permanent solution versus using reverse osmosis."
Slower water flow increases a carbon filter's effectiveness in removing short-chain PFAS, he explained, but it also makes it difficult to keep up with demand for drinking water.
Sims feels he and his board have been vindicated in opting for a reverse osmosis system.
“This is what the military uses on their battleships and carriers to make drinking water out of saltwater. If it’s in there, it gets it out. It doesn’t leave anything but pure water,” he said.
Andrews said research on the health and environmental effects of FBSA and FBSEE is sparse, but some research on closely related short-chain PFAS may be instructive.
“There are significant concerns about the lack of toxicity data, as well as indications that ... they may impact the same health endpoints as do PFOA and PFOS,” the suspected carcinogens, he said.
Complicating any research into toxicity of the hundreds of short-chain PFAS is that people exposed to one such chemical are often exposed to more.
“An important takeaway here is these chemicals are not often detected in isolation in the environment. It’s unclear from (3M’s April 3 letter) if they’re just releasing these one or two chemicals, or also other compounds,” Andrews said.
He likened the situation to GenX, another short-chain replacement chemical that has been found in high concentrations in North Carolina water.
“GenX is the chemical that generated the most news, but you find maybe a dozen other PFAS compounds that are also being released into the water supply there. The question ultimately, from a health perspective, is what’s the cumulative impact of all these different compounds?”
For those exposed to contaminants from 3M and other Decatur industries, the same health risks may be present.
“It may not just be the health concerns from this specific FBSA and FBSEE, but the health concerns of those chemicals added onto the exposure already occurring due to PFOS and PFOA releases, as well as other related chemicals,” Andrews said.
While the EPA has not issued health guidance on short-chain PFAS, Andrews said the fact the agency prohibited 3M from releasing it into the river is suggestive.
“It’s a clear indication that EPA was becoming increasingly concerned about release of these compounds into the environment, knowing how persistent they are and the potential impact on health and aquatic organisms,” Andrews said.
ADEM's Battle noted that EPA has recently announced plans to expand available toxicity information on PFAS and determine toxicity standards.
"The Department is not currently aware of any other information regarding the toxicity or environmental impact of these chemicals," Battle said of FBSA and FBSEE.
David Whiteside is founder of Tennessee Riverkeeper, which already has a lawsuit pending against 3M, Daikin America and others involving PFAS contamination.
“These recent developments are frightening for the people of Decatur and downstream. We have a lot more questions about 3M and Daikin’s short-chain PFAS usage than we have answers right now,” Whiteside said last week. “There are so many of these short-chain chemicals and science knows very little about them.
“Suddenly the problem of PFAS pollution in the Wheeler Reservoir seems to have gotten a whole lot worse and certainly more complicated.”