3M Co. has known for more than 35 years that chemicals it discharged into the Tennessee River were toxic, and for more than 14 years that treatment plants were not removing the chemicals from drinking water, according to a lawsuit filed by a Lawrence County resident with kidney cancer.
The latest claim filed against 3M and its subsidiary Dyneon LLC, Daikin America Inc. and the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority highlights allegations 3M knew of the hazards associated with non-stick industrial chemicals used in its Decatur plant, yet continued to dispose of them in ways that led to river contamination.
The complaint was filed last week in federal court by Deanna Arnold, who was diagnosed in August 2017 with kidney cancer, according to the lawsuit. It alleges West Morgan-East Lawrence knew its drinking water was unsafe for years before taking steps to remove the chemicals, which traveled 13 miles downstream before entering its water supply.
“Defendants (3M and Daikin) knew that their actions contaminated the water of the Tennessee River and that it was used for public consumption, yet failed to warn plaintiff of the presence of these chemicals until plaintiff sustained irreparable injuries,” according to the complaint.
3M has not filed a response to the lawsuit, but it has denied similar claims in the past.
Carl Cole, a lawyer for West Morgan-East Lawrence, said his client is not at fault.
“West Morgan-East Lawrence is a victim of the corporate polluters, just like its customers," Cole said Thursday. "West Morgan-East Lawrence did nothing wrong and has been proactive and has overcome years of lies told to it by the corporate polluters. The people at West Morgan-East Lawrence are heroes, not villains.”
The complaint claims perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) buried in landfills and injected in a sludge incorporation area on 3M property continue to enter the river through tributaries, groundwater and the Decatur Utilities Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Wastewater and stormwater from Daikin's Decatur plant contain the chemicals both because Daikin used and disposed of PFOA, and because Daikin is located on land previously used by 3M for the disposal of contaminated sludge, according to the complaint.
The allegations focus on 3M's disposal of PFOA and PFOS, which once were used in the production of Scotchgard and have also been used in firefighting foams, stain repellents, the lining of microwaveable popcorn bags and numerous other products.
“To this day, defendants still deny the harmful effects of PFOS and PFOA,” according to the complaint.
3M spokeswoman Fanna Haile-Selassie declined comment, but the company has posted a website on the chemicals.
“We do not believe there is a public health issue related to PFOA and PFOS. The chemical compounds in question cause no harm to human health at current levels of exposure,” according to the 3M site.
3M no longer uses or manufactures PFOA or PFOS, and its website says it has spent more than $184 million to reduce levels of the chemicals in the environment. Earlier this year, it agreed to pay $850 million to settle an environmental lawsuit filed by the state of Minnesota alleging improper disposal of the chemicals contaminated water supplies.
The complaint filed by Arnold in federal court alleges her cancer is terminal and that she has elevated levels of PFOA in her blood due to years of consuming contaminated West Morgan-East Lawrence water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 released a health advisory specifying the threshold levels at which PFOS and PFOA were deemed unsafe. The advisory instructed utilities to “promptly notify customers” if levels of the chemicals in drinking water exceeded that amount. West Morgan-East Lawrence notified its customers that its PFOA and PFOS levels exceeded EPA’s recommended threshold.
Because conventional filtration systems do not remove the chemicals, the authority then issued a bond to pay for a $4 million temporary granular activated carbon system. The system has been effective in keeping PFOA and PFOS levels below the threshold limit established by the EPA, and Daikin paid $4 million this year to settle a claim by West Morgan-East Lawrence. The authority's claims against 3M and Dyneon are pending.
D.G. Pantazis, one of Arnold’s lawyers, declined comment.
The Arnold lawsuit and other injury suits filed against 3M, Dyneon and Daikin rely in part on a massive study by the C8 Health Project, which was funded through a settlement of a West Virginia case against Dupont. “C8” is another name for PFOA. The C8 Science Panel identified kidney cancer and testicular cancer as having a “probable link” to PFOA exposure in populations exposed to PFOA in drinking water.
According to a report issued in June 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, increases in cholesterol, thyroid disease, decreased response to vaccines, asthma, decreased fertility and decreased birth weight.
While the carbon filtration system being used at West Morgan-East Lawrence has been effective at removing PFOA and PFOS, General Manager Don Sims said it costs the authority $300,000 per year to replace the carbon. The carbon system has also been ineffective at removing various chemicals related to PFOA and PFOS, leading him to push his board to authorize financing the installation of a reverse osmosis filtration system.
The authority is evaluating two reverse osmosis products.
“We just now finished the pilot test, and we’re going to wait on the reports to come back to see what they tell us,” Sims said. “So far, it looks like (reverse osmosis) is going to remove it with no problem. We won’t decide to do the financing until we get all our reports back on what we’ve got to do.”
West Morgan-East Lawrence has 21,000 direct and indirect water customers — about 53,000 people.