A preliminary investigation of a closed municipal landfill off Old Moulton Road, outside city limits but owned by Decatur, revealed last month the presence of high levels of “forever chemicals” that have been linked to cancer, low birth weight and other maladies.
The site on Ewell Lane is just north of Mud Tavern Creek, a half mile northeast of the intersection of Kirby Bridge Road and Old Moulton Road, and a mile west of the Lake Chulavista neighborhood.
Some surface water samples taken at the site showed levels of PFOA and PFOS, once used by 3M Co. in Scotchgard and other nonstick and grease repellent products, at levels more than 1,500 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended maximum for drinking water. PFOA and PFOS are unregulated contaminants in Alabama, and no recommended limits have been established for surface water or groundwater. The chemicals were also found in Mud Tavern Creek, downstream of the landfill.
“I would encourage anybody with a well not to use it for drinking in that area, in case it’s leaching into the groundwater,” said Morgan County Commissioner Jeff Clark, whose District 1 includes the landfill. The area around the landfill is in West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority’s service area, so treated water is available.
3M in July announced it would evaluate three landfills in Morgan County that had received waste from its Decatur plant, which opened in 1961. Documents filed this month with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management show the presence of PFOA and PFOS in all three: at the Old Moulton Road Landfill, at an old landfill upon which the Aquadome Recreation Center and the former Brookhaven Middle School sit, and at a closed landfill off Deer Springs Road in Flint.
PFOA and PFOS are the most studied of a class of hundreds of man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. PFOA and PFOS are no longer produced in the United States or most other developed nations, but they are called “forever chemicals” because they do not decompose in the environment. The chemicals are an ongoing issue as they leach from landfills and dump sites once used by 3M and other Decatur industries in Morgan and Lawrence counties.
Both PFOA and PFOS have been linked to health risks, including cancer.
High levels of PFAS in human blood and organs typically come from contaminated drinking water, and both West Morgan-East Lawrence and Decatur Utilities say the PFAS levels in their tap water are well below EPA’s recommended limit. Other sources of PFAS exposure include airborne particles and contaminated meat and vegetables.
The 3M document filed last month with ADEM on the Old Moulton Road site was a Preliminary Investigation Work Plan, prepared for the company by GHD Services Inc.
ADEM spokeswoman Lynn Battle said last week the work plan was submitted to ADEM for review, but no ADEM approval is necessary.
“They’re basically giving us a heads-up on what they plan to do,” she said.
Based on the preliminary evaluation of the site and a review of its history, GHD in its work plan said it will clear trees from the site, take soil samples, and install six pairs of groundwater monitoring wells.
The evaluation will analyze samples not just for PFAS, but for numerous other chemicals and metals.
While the landfill was closed and covered by 2 feet of soil in 1973, according to ADEM records, fly ash from Decatur’s Monsanto plant was dumped there from 1979 to 1982. When ADEM analyzed the exposed fly ash in 1991, it found concentrations of arsenic, lead, zinc and other heavy metals, and inspectors raised concerns that the topography was such that contaminants could be “leaching out of the landfill and into the groundwater.”
ADEM required the city to monitor the groundwater, but since the metals it was testing for did not exceed maximum contaminant levels, the monitoring ended in 1996. The monitoring will start again under the 3M plan, as it also will at the Deer Springs Road and Brookhaven landfills.
Danny Hyatt, 70, lives near the Old Moulton Road Landfill and remembers discovering the fly ash “when I was a young man” while wading in Mud Tavern Creek to fish.
“When I got down there about even with Old Moulton Road, I started seeing all this crap everywhere. There was at least a dump truck load of fly ash going in there every day. They were just pouring it on the ground and not covering it up, and it was literally washing down the hill into Mud Tavern Creek,” he recalled, adding that he reported it to ADEM.
Hyatt’s primary concern is that PFAS and other pollutants will leave the landfill through an existing spring, enter the Tennessee River via Flint Creek and affect municipal water supplies. He’s also concerned that Hartselle, which now obtains its water from Decatur Utilities, was pumping its drinking water from Flint Creek while the Old Moulton Road and Deer Springs landfills were in operation.
“I guess it’s too late to do anything about that,” he said.
He’s disappointed that the contaminants are in the county, but said he doesn’t place blame.
“I’m not a tree hugger, OK?” he said. “I’m 70 years old so I don’t think it’s going to affect me much, and I don’t have any family around here that’s drinking the water. I don’t really blame them, but it is really, really suspicious 3M didn’t know more back then. They’re a very sophisticated chemical company. They should have done more research on it.”
The contaminants the community is dealing with now are the flip-side of the community’s goals in past decades, he said.
“We wanted all these companies to come here. Chemstrand, 3M, Amoco — all these chemical plants, we wanted them here, for people to work. There are consequences to everything. Some of them are good and some of them are bad.”
Clark said he’s glad 3M is evaluating the three landfills — all of which are in his district — and looks forward to hearing plans for remediation of the pollutants.
“The things that were done in the past were apparently legal to do. They realize now that it’s not good business to do that. I think 3M’s going to do the right thing. They’re going to try to clean it up as best they can,” Clark said. “People will have to understand that it’s going to be many years before the levels get back to where you want them to be.”
When announcing it would investigate the landfills, 3M stressed it disposed of the waste legally.
“While we are confident that we followed all existing laws and regulations when we delivered waste materials to these landfills decades ago, we are committed to working with the city, county and government regulators to take appropriate steps to investigate these landfills and make sure they are maintained in a safe condition. If there are any PFAS-related issues with the sites, we will find and fix them,” Robin Higgs, 3M’s former Decatur site manager and current Film and Materials Resource Division director, said in a statement in July.
Clark said his main concern had previously been the drinking water. West Morgan-East Lawrence in 2015 sued 3M over PFAS that allegedly contaminated its drinking water, and this year 3M settled for $35 million.
“There must be something to it if they agreed to give West Morgan-East Lawrence $35 million,” Hyatt said.
The water authority is using the money to build a high-tech water filtration plant to replace the carbon filtration plant that has been removing PFOA and PFOS since 2016.
“I’m not worried too much about the drinking water anymore,” Clark said. “I know 3M’s trying to remediate the chemicals. Hopefully Mother Nature and the good Lord will take care of it over the course of time after 3M does what it can do.”
Tennessee Riverkeeper has a lawsuit pending over PFAS waste against 3M, the city of Decatur, Daikin America and BFI Waste Systems. The director of the nonprofit is less sanguine than Clark.
“3M has profited immensely from selling nonstick PFAS products. Tennessee Riverkeeper believes they need to clean up their mess with a great sense of urgency,” said David Whiteside. “They need to internalize the cost of cleaning up all this PFAS pollution just as they internalized their profits, rather than externalizing the pollution onto the citizens.”
Battle said that even though PFAS are unregulated, ADEM will carefully evaluate the results of 3M’s monitoring of the three Morgan County sites.
“Those plans and the assessments that are conducted will give us information. The investigation will determine what remediation or removal actions would be necessary,” Battle said. “This is a fact-gathering process that 3M has put in place. We’re still addressing the contaminants, even though they’re unregulated.”