The 3M company will test three closed landfills in the Decatur area at the request of city and Morgan County officials for a class of chemicals that caused the neighboring West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority to issue a warning to customers in 2016.
Decatur Utilities said in a statement that its water supply remains safe.
In a news release Monday afternoon, 3M said it has been working to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, in the local environment. At least two of the chemicals in the PFAS family, PFOA and PFOS, were dumped on 3M’s riverfront Decatur facility and continue to contaminate the groundwater there, according to 3M filings with the state. PFOA and PFOS are no longer used or produced by 3M, but previously were used in Scotchgard and other products and coatings that resisted stains and had nonstick characteristics.
“For the past several months, 3M has been conducting a thorough search for former landfills in Morgan and Lawrence counties to test for any waste that may include PFAs," 3M said in the release. "At the request of City of Decatur and Morgan County officials, 3M agreed that the next phase in 3M’s analysis will include an evaluation of the closed waste disposal sites of Brookhaven, Deer Springs (in the Flint area) and Old Moulton Road/Mud Tavern. 3M will work closely with the city, county and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management in conducting these assessments.”
The company said these disposal sites date back to the 1950s and were closed in accordance with the best practices in place at the time. “They were actively monitored by government regulatory agencies for compliance with landfill closure regulations. Each site was released by regulators from monitoring in the 1990s,” the company said.
State Health Officer Scott Harris said the Alabama Department of Public Health has not received any reports of health hazards associated with people in the area shared by the old Brookhaven Middle School campus and Aquadome Recreation Center.
"Swallowing or dermal contact with PFAS-containing surface water through recreational activities are not expected to cause harm to human health," Harris said.
Decatur Utilities spokesman Joe Holmes said customers should know "that our water is clean and safe to drink."
A statement from DU said, “Tests for these chemicals in our water supply have been non-detect, or at near non-detectable levels. The highest value in any recent test was less than 5 parts per trillion combined level for both chemicals, which is near the minimum detection levels. For reference, one part per trillion is the equivalent of one square inch in 250 square miles or ... one ounce in 7.5 billion gallons of water. As a reminder, while not a regulatory limit, the EPA health advisory for lifetime consumption was established at 70 parts per trillion. All compounds in this family of chemicals continue to be studied by EPA; however, they are all currently unregulated."
3M will "fix" PFAS issues
3M reached a $35 million settlement with the West Morgan-East Lawrence water system earlier this year over alleged water contamination. 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 PFAs 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, WMEL general manager Don 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. The West Morgan-East Lawrence system wants to have a reverse osmosis filtration plant built by 2020 using proceeds from the 3M settlement.
Robin Higgs, 3M’s former Decatur site manager and current film and materials resource Division director, said the company has "a responsibility to this community, and our leadership is serious about continuing to address any remaining PFAs concerns here.
“While we are confident that we followed all existing laws and regulations when we delivered waste materials to these landfills decades ago, we are committed to working with the city, county and government regulators to take appropriate steps to investigate these landfills and make sure they are maintained in a safe condition. If there are any PFAs-related issues with the sites, we will find and fix them.”
Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long said he has confidence in 3M, which has had operations in Decatur since 1961.
“We met with 3M last week to discuss this,” Long said. “Our biggest concern is that 3M is taking responsibility for their actions. They’ve been a good neighbor in the area for a long time. We have confidence they’ll continue to do the right thing.”
Brookhaven site in use
Decatur Youth Services has begun using part of the Brookhaven campus, and DYS Director Bruce Jones said it has been a meaningful addition to his agency. DYS uses it for day camps, drug counseling, behavioral classes, home-schooling needs and AAU basketball, he said.
“None of our students or our staff have been sick being involved at Brookhaven,” Jones said. “Brookhaven was used as a school for many years before us. At this point, nothing has happened. We will continue to use it until somebody tells us otherwise. … I appreciate that 3M is willing to step up and look at the concerns.”
A statement from the city said Decatur and Morgan County "expect to announce soon a plan of action to address the presence of these chemicals (PFAS) in the current Decatur-Morgan County Landfill."
Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling said, “I understand that Decatur citizens want to know what all of this means to them. Most importantly, Decatur’s water is completely safe. … We will continue to use advances in technology and knowledge to identify ways to improve our community in order to keep our citizens safe.”
According to a report issued last year by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, health risks associated with the chemicals include kidney and testicular cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, decreased response to vaccines, asthma, decreased fertility and decreased birth weight.
PFAS have been detected in breast milk and umbilical cord blood, according to the report.
In the past, 3M has asserted the chemicals “do not cause harm to human health at the levels typically found in the environment and in human blood.”