An environmental issue that recently captured national attention long has been a focus of local concern.
Recent news reports based on emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act disclosed that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was preparing to publish a study on perfluorinated compounds that indicates the chemicals are dangerous at levels well below those that have been deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
A report last month in Politico quoted the emails it obtained:
“ ‘The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,’ one unidentified White House aide said in an email forwarded Jan. 30 by James Herz, a political appointee who oversees environmental issues at the OMB. The email added: ‘The impact to EPA and (the Defense Department) is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.’ "
The news reports have triggered political pressure to release the ATSDR report, including an amendment recently to the National Defense Authorization Bill filed by several Democratic senators.
Most research on the health effects of perfluorinated compounds focuses on perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). They are part of a class of man-made chemicals — variously referred to as PFCs, PFAS and C8 — that consist of a chain of eight carbon atoms attached to fluorine and other atoms.
PFCs have been used in the United States since the 1940s, primarily as a coating to make products resist heat, stains, water and grease. 3M Co. in Decatur used the chemicals to produce Scotchgard, which was used by Solutia in Decatur for stain-resistant carpets. Decatur’s Daikin plant also has used PFAS, as has 3M subsidiary Dyneon.
Nationally, another source of PFC contamination is firefighting foam, which has been used heavily in exercises at U.S. military bases.
Studies have found that ingestion of PFCs is linked to health problems, including developmental delays in fetuses and children; decreased fertility; increased cholesterol; changes to the immune system; increased uric acid levels and high blood pressure; changes in liver enzymes; and prostate, kidney and testicular cancer.
Locally, and to a large extent nationally, PFOS and PFOA production has ended. Ridding the environment of the chemicals, however, has proved far more difficult than discontinuing their production. Because they are not biodegradable and are not easily filtered from water, the chemicals continue to pollute Decatur-area groundwater, streams and the Tennessee River.
Local attention was first focused on the chemicals in 2008. Decatur Utilities had for years disposed of sludge from its wastewater treatment plant on area farms, most in Lawrence County. Farmers requested the sludge because it acted as a fertilizer. Testing in 2008, however, revealed extremely high levels of PFAS in the sludge, and subsequent testing revealed the chemical was entering groundwater and the river. DU and contractor Synagro discontinued the practice in 2009.
Since then, sludge from the wastewater treatment plant has been disposed of at the Morgan County Regional Landfill.
This has proved problematic, as PFAS-contaminated leachate from the Morgan County landfill is piped to the wastewater treatment plant, which is not capable of removing the chemicals. The treatment plant also receives leachate with high PFAS levels from BFI’s Morris Farms Landfill in Hillsboro. Thus PFAS continue to enter the river through the wastewater treatment plant, as well as through groundwater contaminated by old industrial dumps.
Both landfills were directed by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to study ways to remove PFOA and PFOS from their leachate.
“It has been concluded treatment options have not yet presented a cost-effective option to reduce PFC levels from leachate,” wrote Nathan Tomberlin of Pugh Wright McAnally Inc., the engineering firm retained by the Morgan County landfill, Jan. 26.
A report issued the same day by BFI Environmental Manager Amber Hoffman reached the same conclusion.
Hoffman examined several methods of removing the chemicals from leachate, focusing on filtration using powdered activated carbon. While this method is effective, she wrote, it produces large amounts of contaminated waste “which, if landfilled, would present an ongoing PFC source within the landfill.”
In a nutshell, this is a problem with all efforts to remove PFCs. It is expensive to filter out the chemical, and the chemical’s apparent toxicity at even extremely low concentrations means there is no simple way to dispose of the contaminated residue.
Tennessee Riverkeeper lawyer Mark Martin said the PFCs travel a circular path in the Decatur area.
“The solids that settle out at the wastewater treatment plant, the sludge that once went to farmers until they realized how contaminated it was, now goes to the Morgan County landfill,” Martin said. “The PFCs in the sludge end up in the leachate, which gets sent back to the wastewater treatment plant. Then the circle begins all over again, going back and forth except for what gets discharged into the river.”
The executive director of Tennessee Riverkeeper, David Whiteside, said cost-effectiveness arguments should not prevent action when it comes to PFCs.
“It is absolutely vital to protect the public health of all the citizens of our region at any cost,” Whiteside said last week. “Tennessee Riverkeeper demands that this PFC pollution in Wheeler Reservoir be remediated and cleaned up in the most effective way possible.”
Decatur Utilities drinking water is taken from the Tennessee River several miles upstream from the Decatur industrial corridor that accounts for most of the local PFOA and PFOS contamination. A test of DU drinking water last year showed no detectable levels of PFOA or PFOS.
West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority is 16 miles downstream of Decatur’s industrial corridor, and it has struggled to remove the chemicals. The authority borrowed $4 million to install a temporary activated carbon filtration system last year, and it has spent $300,000 in 18 months to replace the spent carbon.
PFCs are not just raising health concerns in the Decatur area, they are keeping lawyers and judges busy. Legal interest in the issue increased in February, when 3M agreed to pay $850 million to settle a claim by the state of Minnesota alleging the company knowingly contaminated a county's drinking water.
Numerous lawsuits have been filed against 3M, Daikin and Dyneon, as well as against the city of Decatur and West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority.
Tennessee Riverkeeper has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force 3M, BFI and Decatur to clean up the reservoir.
West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority, along with many landowners, filed a suit seeking financial relief that would allow it to build a permanent treatment plant to remove PFCs from drinking water. The effort suffered a setback this month when an appellate court rejected a $5 million settlement agreement between the plaintiffs and Daikin.
A lawsuit in Morgan County Circuit Court began in 2002 as a worker’s compensation claim by a 3M employee, but has expanded into a proposed class action against numerous defendants. It is now in mediation.
A federal suit filed this year alleges 3M allowed PFC-contaminated debris to be dumped on their Lawrence County property.
Twenty-three customers of West Morgan-East Lawrence last year filed a lawsuit alleging injury from the authority’s drinking water. The plaintiffs claim the PFC-contaminated water caused thyroid cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, hyperthyroidism and ulcerative colitis. They are seeking the court’s approval to expand into a class action.
At least two other lawsuits in Lawrence County Circuit Court against West Morgan-East Lawrence and other defendants are seeking class-action status.
Lloyd Gathings of Birmingham, the lawyer in one of the Lawrence County lawsuits, represents 300 people seeking compensation for damages related to PFC-contaminated water.
“We’re seeing residents from up there that have a couple different kinds of cancer related to PFCs, and we’re seeing a higher rate of those cancers than you would normally see,” Gathings said. “The more we look at this, the more concerned we are.”