Sixteen miles downstream of the Decatur Utilities wastewater treatment plant, the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority is struggling to rid its drinking water of the chemicals DU is pumping into the river.

The wastewater DU sends to the river from its plant next to Ingalls Harbor contains almost 18 times the maximum amount of perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, deemed safe in drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency. West Morgan-East Lawrence — like almost all water authorities, including DU — has no way to remove the chemicals from the water it draws from the river.

“Holy moly,” said West Morgan-East Lawrence General Manager Don Sims, when told Thursday of the level of perfluorinated compounds being discharged by his upstream neighbor. “That’s why we’re still getting it in the river. Lord have mercy, people don’t know this. We didn’t know it. That’s what’s keeping our problem going, and our people are getting stuck paying for it.”

To dilute the chemicals in West Morgan-East Lawrence drinking water, the authority last week began purchasing 2.8 million gallons per day of drinking water from DU at a cost of about $85,000 per month. DU’s drinking water, which is collected 2½ miles upstream of its wastewater treatment plant, does not contain the chemicals.

“That’s one way for them to sell the water,” Sims said of DU. “We’ll just contaminate yours and sell you ours.”

The EPA, after years of review, last month issued a health advisory warning of the risks associated with long-term consumption of drinking water containing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).

Drinking water with combined PFOA and PFOS levels below 70 parts per trillion is safe, according to the advisory. Above that amount, studies indicate long-term exposure to the chemicals may cause developmental problems for fetuses and breastfed infants, including low birth weight and accelerated puberty. Higher levels of the chemicals also are linked to testicular, kidney and other cancers, to liver damage, to immunity disorders, to thyroid problems and other health issues.

In response to a public records request, DU provided reports detailing the level of the chemicals in the treated wastewater it discharges into the river.

In its most recent report, filed with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management in April, DU reported the treated wastewater it discharges into the river had PFOA concentrations of 460 parts per trillion and PFOS levels of 770 parts per trillion. That's 17.6 times the EPA's advisory limit for drinking water.

In a 2014 engineering report DU filed with ADEM, the utility said the primary sources of the chemicals it discharges into the river are the Morgan County Regional Landfill, which is jointly owned by Decatur and Morgan County, and Morris Farm Landfill in Hillsboro. 

The liquid waste DU accepts from the Morgan landfill contained 82,000 parts per trillion of PFOA and 35,000 parts per trillion of PFOS, according to a report the landfill filed with ADEM in April. These levels are 1,671 times the EPA’s advisory limit on the chemicals in drinking water.

The liquid waste DU accepts from Morris Farm Landfill contains PFOA at 92,000 parts per trillion and PFOS at 69,000 parts per trillion, according to a report the landfill filed with ADEM in April. These levels are 2,300 times the EPA advisory limit for drinking water.

Brad Kiesling, a spokesman for Republic Services, which owns Morris Farm Landfill, declined to answer specific questions. He issued a statement Friday that said "we are compliant with all environmental rules. Working closely with (ADEM), we continue to meet the requirements in the leachate permit they issue to us, including requirements for discharge of leachate to Decatur Utilities for treatment."

In the 2014 report, DU recommended the agency crack down on the Morgan County landfill, which in July 2013 discontinued an $800,000 effort to remove the two chemicals from leachate. Leachate is water that has percolated through materials in the landfill, and which must be removed because of the waterproof liner beneath the landfill. The leachate drains through a sewer pipe to DU's treatment plant and then into the Tennessee River.

The chemicals that enter the wastewater treatment plant go one of two places: into the river, or into sludge that is removed from the wastewater during the treatment process.

DU disposes of the sludge at the Morgan County landfill.

“It’s a vicious circle,” said Mark Martin, a lawyer with Tennessee Riverkeepers, an organization that has filed a notice of its intent to sue 3M Co., the city of Decatur, Decatur Utilities and BFI Waste Systems over chemicals found in Wheeler Reservoir. "It just stays in that circle until it finally ends up in the river."

The sludge DU sends to the landfill has PFOS levels of 190,000 parts per trillion and PFOA levels of 7,200 parts per trillion, according to tests performed in January 2015.

Decatur Utilities General Manager Ray Hardin declined comment because of ongoing litigation against the city-owned utility, but a lawyer for the city in that litigation issued a statement Friday in response to The Decatur Daily’s questions.

The statement, from attorney Barney Lovelace, emphasized there are no laws or regulations restricting the discharge of PFOA or PFOS into the river, but said the city and Morgan County are studying ways to reduce the amount of the chemicals discharged from both the landfill and the wastewater treatment plant.  

According to the statement, the city and county are seeking to require the companies who generated the chemicals to pay the cost of reducing them.

“The city of Decatur and Morgan County firmly believe that any costs and expenses that may be incurred to reduce the levels of PFCs should not be paid for by the customers of the Landfill or the City’s sewer system,” according to Lovelace's statement.

Other defendants in the Morgan County Circuit Court lawsuit include 3M Co., Daikin America, Dyneon, Toray Carbon Fibers and Toray Fluorofibers. The complaint alleges all the companies disposed of the chemicals in ways that ultimately polluted the Tennessee River. While DU's wastewater treatment plant contributes PFOA and PFOS to the river, much of it comes from groundwater and other sources near Decatur industries. 3M, which stopped producing the chemicals in 2002, is in the midst of a massive ADEM-supervised remediation effort on its Decatur property to reduce their migration from the soil into groundwater and the river.

The city’s director of Street and Environmental Services, Rickey Terry, oversees the Morgan landfill. He said the landfill is required to file a report with ADEM in about 16 months that examines the best ways to remove the PFOA and PFOS from its leachate before it is piped to DU. 

Decatur Mayor Don Kyle declined to answer specific questions due to the ongoing litigation, which he said currently is in mediation, but noted there are major sources for the chemicals that end up in West Morgan-East Lawrence drinking water other than DU.

“I want to see these substances reduced from all sources,” Kyle said. “I’d like the levels to be as close to zero as possible, so they’re not going back into the environment. If we can identify ways of keeping the chemicals from getting to (DU’s wastewater treatment plant), I would like to be able to identify them.”

One of the chemicals, PFOS, is responsible for an Alabama Department of Public Health advisory recommending people consume no more than one largemouth bass per month. The advisory applies to fish caught on the south side of Wheeler Reservoir between the wastewater treatment plant and a point 7 miles downstream. 

Sims, whose West Morgan-East Lawrence water authority has filed a federal suit against 3M, Dyneon and Daikin over anticipated expenses associated with removing the chemicals from the drinking water, said his frustration extends to DU. The authority this week announced it will increase rates to pay for a $4 million temporary filtration system to remove the chemicals.

"The most frustrating part of it is that my ratepayers are getting stuck with this," Sims said. "My people have to pay for it, and they're not the ones putting the stuff in the river."

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eric@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2435. Twitter @DD_Fleischauer.

(4) comments

Melba Clark

"Drinking water with combined PFOA and PFOS levels below 70 parts per trillion is safe, according to the advisory. Above that amount, studies indicate long-term exposure to the chemicals may cause developmental problems for fetuses and breastfed infants, including low birth weight and accelerated puberty. Higher levels of the chemicals also are linked to testicular, kidney and other cancers, to liver damage, to immunity disorders, to thyroid problems and other health issues."

So what, exactly, are the specific "higher levels" linked to testicular, kidney and other cancers, to... other health issues? How many parts per trillion can be in the water before I have an elevated risk of testicular cancer? How many ppt can be in the water before I'm at elevated risk of thyroid issues?

The only specific level mentioned in the entire article is the 70 ppt that applies to pregnant and nursing mothers and their babies. It then goes on to apply that more restrictive standard to all of the other numbers in the entire article.

As someone who has been drinking water supplied by the WMEL for 20+ years but who has not been a pregnant or nursing mother during that time I'd like to know what is the risk to which I've been exposed by the levels of PFCs present in the water during that time.

Pamela Blakely

Yet again Kyle cannot comment because of ongoing litigation. How fortunate for him. He is a joke.

Pamela Blakely

Decatur is blessed with a good newspaper. Thank you for revealing that Decatur is the cause of the problem.

Decatur discharging these chemicals and polluting the Tennessee River was not supposed to be revealed until after the election.

When will Decatur admit that Decatur is only testing for lead or copper in 30 homes in SW Decatur?

J. T.

Wait, why test for copper? Aren't a lot of pipes made of it anyway?

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