Forty-two months after it began, a lawsuit filed by West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority against 3M Co. alleging its Decatur plant contaminated their water supply has settled, the parties announced in a carefully worded statement this morning.

Not included in the statement is the amount of the settlement, but it gives a clue.

“This settlement will allow for a new filtration system at WMEL,” according to the joint statement, which is an exhibit to a settlement agreement that remains confidential.

WMEL’s main objective in the litigation has been to finance construction of a reverse osmosis filtration plant that has a price tag of about $31 million.

At the recommendation of WMEL general manager Don Sims and their attorneys, the WMEL board earlier this month approved the settlement. In the same meeting the board rescinded a planned fee increase that over three years would have reached $9 per month, the sole purpose of which was to be the financing of the reverse osmosis plant.

The lawsuit initially was filed both by WMEL and by a class consisting of WMEL customers. While the class action remains pending, the settlement solely involves the claims by the water authority.

“This settlement pertains only to the lawsuit between WMEL and 3M,” according to this morning’s statement. “Now that the litigation between WMEL and 3M is concluded, neither 3M nor WMEL will make any further statements.”

Carl Cole, Jeff Friedman, Cary McWhorter and Robert McWhorter, attorneys representing WMEL in the case, all declined comment.

The lawsuit focused on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. At least two of the chemicals in the PFAS family, PFOA and PFOS, were contained in sludge dumped on 287 acres of 3M’s riverfront Decatur facility and continue to contaminate the groundwater there, according to 3M filings with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. The chemicals also are present in off-site dumps and landfills, and WMEL alleged 3M waste is a primary source of river contamination.

WMEL draws its raw water from the river, about 13 miles downstream of the 3M plant in Decatur. WMEL drinking water tested above U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lifetime exposure guidelines for PFOA and PFOS when the agency first issued the guidelines in 2016. WMEL later that year installed a temporary granulated activated carbon filtration system, which has removed PFOA and PFOS from the drinking water.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has said health risks associated with PFOA and PFOS include kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility and decreased birth weight.

PFOA and PFOS have largely been phased out of production in the U.S., and neither chemical has been used at the Decatur plant since at least 2008, according to 3M.

Daikin was also a defendant in WMEL’s suit, and it settled last year for $4 million. WMEL used that money to finance construction of the granulated activated carbon filtration system.

Conventional water plants do not remove PFAS. While the granulated activated carbon plant WMEL is now using removes PFOA and PFOS, Sims has said it is less effective at removing other chemicals in the PFAS family. Some studies have raised questions about the safety of other PFAS, which have been used in many industries as a replacement for PFOA and PFOS.

Sims has said pilot tests of reverse osmosis filtration at WMEL have removed all PFAS from drinking water.

Earlier this month, Sims said the reverse osmosis plant should be operational in 30 months. Once it goes online, he said, WMEL's 53,000 direct and indirect customers will receive some of the cleanest drinking water in the nation.

"We'll basically be putting out bottled water," Sims said.

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