3M Co., one of Morgan County's largest employers, temporarily suspended some manufacturing operations at its Decatur chemical plant for environmental reasons, a spokeswoman for the company said Thursday, but no layoffs are expected.
“We have elected to temporarily idle certain manufacturing processes related to our fluoropolymer manufacturing at 3M Decatur. This is part of our ongoing work with EPA and ADEM to address compliance matters at this facility,” said spokeswoman Fanna Haile-Selassie.
The company has struggled with pollution issues related to its use and disposal of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. PFAS are used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water.
The company said it does not expect the suspension of manufacturing processes to result in a loss of jobs.
"At this time, we intend on shifting roles and responsibilities to maintain employment of all affected 3M Decatur workers at the facility," she said.
The Decatur plant has 950 employees.
"Roughly 80 to 100 employees will temporarily shift responsibilities at this time," Haile-Selassie said.
In a statement, the company said it had notified its employees, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this week of the plans.
“3M takes seriously its environmental compliance obligations and continuously assesses its performance against those obligations and the company’s commitment to environmental stewardship," according to the statement. "While we continue to work with the EPA and ADEM on previously disclosed issues, we have elected to temporarily idle certain manufacturing processes. We will resume these processes as soon as practicable.”
Asked for a copy of 3M’s notification, ADEM spokeswoman Lynn Battle responded by email, “The Department was informed of this action. No further information is available from ADEM at this time.”
3M was sued in late 2015 by West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority, which alleged PFAS had entered the authority's drinking water supply 13 miles downstream from the Decatur plant. 3M settled that claim in May for $35 million, and the authority is using the funds to build a high-tech reverse osmosis filtration plant designed to remove PFAS from the water supply.
3M is also a defendant in dozens of other lawsuits alleging environmental and health problems related to its Decatur plant's use and disposal of PFAS.
One of those lawsuits was filed by nonprofit Tennessee Riverkeeper. The federal lawsuit, currently in the midst of court-ordered mediation, seeks to force 3M to clean up the river and to take more aggressive steps to prevent ongoing contamination of the river from previously dumped chemicals.
David Whiteside, the nonprofit’s executive director, on Thursday said he takes little solace from 3M’s announcement that it will idle fluoropolymer manufacturing processes, in part because the statement provides few details on which processes are being idled and which chemicals are causing compliance issues.
“The announcement is unexpected and in my opinion purposefully vague,” Whiteside said. “3M’s statement leaves more questions than answers.
“After what 3M has done to the Wheeler Reservoir for decades, and then dragging their feet on cleaning up their mess, I don’t trust them.”
The lack of specifics in the announcement also concerned David Andrews, senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
“It’s important that they’re stopping production, but there’s very little information here," Andrews said. "This is an industry that typically hides behind confidentiality and embraces a lack of transparency in terms of what is produced, the safety of what’s being produced, and how much is being released into the environment.”
The lack of transparency — both by 3M and by environmental agencies — complicates efforts to solve the problem, he said.
“This highlights why there is so much difficulty in understanding the scope of the contamination, as well as coming up with a plan to remediate and clean up our environment,” Andrews said.
3M in July committed to testing closed waste disposal sites at the former Brookhaven Middle School in Decatur, Deer Springs (in the Flint area) and at Old Moulton Road/Mud Tavern. Concerns about the chemicals at Brookhaven recently contributed to the city’s decision to prevent Decatur Youth Services from continuing to use the facility.
The company is also in the process of cleaning up several dump sites in Lawrence County. Two of the sites are just west of Trinity, on Lawrence County 358 and Lawrence County 222. A third dump site 3M is preparing for remediation is off Browns Ferry Road in Lawrence County, near Mallard Fox Creek.
The most studied chemicals in the PFAS family are PFOA and PFOS. 3M no longer produces the two chemicals, which it once used to make products including Scotchgard, but past disposal practices on the company’s riverfront Decatur property along State Docks Road have caused PFOA and PFOS to leach into the groundwater and enter Bakers Creek and Wheeler Reservoir, according to ADEM filings.
High levels of PFOS in fish tissue have resulted in the Alabama Department of Public Health issuing consumption advisories for Bakers Creek and much of Wheeler Reservoir. The state does not test fish for PFOA.
3M has spent years trying to clean up PFOA and PFOS waste from its Decatur site.
The company last year completed the installation of flexible membrane liners over 287 acres where the company had previously placed contaminated sludge, according to ADEM filings. The purpose of the liners is to prevent rain from leaching the chemicals into the groundwater and then into the river.
The work also included excavation to prevent surface water from leaving the 287-acre sludge area, including the removal of 5,000 cubic yards of soil to create slopes on the perimeter of the property.
Remediation efforts at the 3M plant also include the monitoring of PFOA and PFOS levels in groundwater. The company samples 48 monitoring wells annually.
3M has 10 groundwater recovery wells on its property. Once groundwater is extracted, 3M uses a granular activated carbon system to filter out PFOA and PFOS. This year, 3M told ADEM, it would expand its groundwater treatment system to include more wells.
In 2018, the company also tested surface water from 11 locations along State Docks Road.
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.
PFOA and PFOS have been detected in breast milk and umbilical cord blood, according to the report.
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.
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 PFOA and PFOS, 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.
Among these short-chain replacements are FBSA and FBSEE. In 2009, 3M entered into a consent order with the EPA 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 ADEM.
“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.”
Andrews said short-chain PFAS molecules are smaller than the long-chain PFOA and PFOS, and that makes them more difficult to filter from manufacturing waste.
“The short-chain, for many types of processes, can be much more difficult to capture. We know it’s more difficult to capture in water treatment facilities, for example. That has to do with the size of the molecule. That can make these shorter chains more difficult to contain,” he said.
This could account for 3M’s current compliance issues, he said.
“It’s an indication of how difficult it is, even in production, to stop these chemicals from causing contamination. The release often occurs in producing these and in the life-cycle of these chemicals,” Andrews said. “This is a much bigger problem than just one plant.”