Decatur Councilman Charles Kirby proposed Monday hiring an independent agency to test the city’s drinking water, prompting Mayor Tab Bowling to exclaim, “You’re a nut!” in the council premeeting session.
At the request of city and Morgan County Commission officials, 3M announced last week that it would evaluate three closed landfills in Decatur for the potentially hazardous chemicals PFOA and PFOS, which the company once manufactured.
Multiple entities are involved in various lawsuits over those chemicals locally. But Kirby said he doesn’t trust the lawyers from 3M-Decatur, Tennessee Riverkeeper, Decatur Utilities or the city so a testing agency with independent oversight “from a group like ADEM” is needed.
The mayor called what Kirby said in the premeeting “totally ludicrous. He’s trying to put the fear in the minds of our residents. We have hourly workers at the water plant who do testing. If we were getting bad ratings, someone by now would have shared that information.
“Our water’s safe,” Bowling said. “I’m drinking it, my grandchildren are drinking it, you’re drinking it.”
Bowling said Kirby “has been off the reservation for a little over a month now. He accused our fire chief of extortion and racketeering. He made unsubstantiated claims on our finance this weekend. He needs to be able to prove these things.”
Bowling said Kirby keeps using open forums like the City Council meetings and the media to say outrageous things.
“He’s not serving in his position responsibly,” Bowling said. “Charles is very unemployable. There’s no one who will give him gainful employment. I don’t know why anyone would give him any credibility.”
Kirby said the mayor’s criticism of him “tells me he’s listening to the bureaucrats that I’ve pissed off. The mayor is drinking the Kool-Aid that this can all be worked out, and it’s never truly worked out until the lawsuit is behind us.
“The mayor has no experience writing paychecks and I do, and this is an excuse to repeatedly tear down reputations. Others in this administration are also making remarks against people’s reputations,” Kirby said.
3M quit manufacturing PFOA and PFOS, two compounds in the PFAS family of chemicals, in 2000. The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority agreed to a $35 million settlement with 3M earlier this year over alleged water contamination by PFAS. The environmental advocacy group Tennessee Riverkeeper has a lawsuit pending over the same chemicals against 3M, Daikin, the city of Decatur and Toray Fluorofibers. Defendants in another lawsuit include 3M, BFI Waste Management, the city of Decatur and the Decatur Utilities board.
Kirby said he does trust Decatur Utilities and believes the water is safe to drink, but he thinks the parties in lawsuits are too motivated to keep quiet and protect their own public relations and interests. That's why he suggested the Alabama Department of Environmental Management as a neutral observer of testing.
“There’s one group whose interests haven’t been represented so far and that’s the citizens of Decatur …,” Kirby said. “We’re not giving our citizens surety when there’s a contractor hired by the company that supposedly created the problem. We’re going to get a test result from someone beholden to them.”
In response, Councilman Chuck Ard told Kirby, “You have done nothing but go into the sensational and cry foul over something that is not true. You have now raised a level of concern. They deserve the truth — not a bunch of BS.”
City Attorney Herman Marks told Kirby he didn’t have all of the information and this information would change his stance. Marks said he would share the information with Kirby in private.
“We’re not going to just rely solely on 3M for information,” Marks said afterward. “If we thought there was something that needed testing, we put it to further evaluation.”
City Council President Paige Bibbee said she and a friend who has a master’s degree in health safety “and knows about chemicals in water” split the $1,000 cost of testing about 20 samples of the city’s water at a qualified lab.
“I wanted to do the tests on my own terms, not DU’s, not the city’s terms,” Bibbee said. “The water was fine
“You spend your money to test it if you don’t trust other tests. Any person can do that. You can do that,” she told Kirby.
Councilman Billy Jackson said after the meeting he doesn’t have a problem with Kirby’s suggestion of hiring an independent agency to test the city’s water especially if it’s for the safety and welfare of the residents.
“It’s no different from hiring a consultant for the One Decatur (comprehensive) plan even though you know it’s got our Planning Department’s influence all over it,” Jackson said.
The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority issued a warning about its water to customers in 2016 after the level of PFAS exceeded federal guidelines. The authority’s drinking water is drawn from the Tennessee River 16 miles downstream of Decatur industries. It now uses a carbon filtration system that has its water within guidelines and plans to build a reverse osmosis filtration plant with proceeds from the 3M settlement.