Throw a dart at a map of Morgan and Lawrence counties and the odds are good that it will hit one of the many toxic dumps that are the disturbing legacy of 3M Co.’s historic methods of waste disposal. Toxic chemicals disposed of by 3M and other Decatur industries can be found on 3M and Daikin property, in the Morgan County Regional Landfill and at Morris Farms Landfill in Hillsboro. At least 13 closed landfills or untended dumps in Morgan and Lawrence counties also contain toxic waste.

Included in the waste are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS, called “forever chemicals” because they last so long in the environment, have been linked with serious health conditions including kidney and testicular cancer, decreased fertility, liver damage, reduced birth weight and damage to the immune system.

Unfortunately, PFAS do not remain where they are dumped. In Morgan and Lawrence counties they migrate into groundwater and streams and ultimately flow into the Tennessee River. From there they enter humans, either through drinking water or contaminated fish.

There is abundant evidence that 3M knew of the toxicity of PFAS even as it dumped it. This knowledge, not shared with the public, gave the company’s home state of Minnesota the ammunition it needed to secure a settlement in 2018 worth $850 million. It also no doubt contributed to a $98.4 million settlement approved last week by Decatur, Morgan County and Decatur Utilities that will be finalized when signed by 3M officials, as well as two other settlements requiring court approval that would expand the obligations of 3M and other industries to clean up the pollutants.

While 3M’s history of waste disposal is abhorrent, it is showing signs that its corporate culture is changing. 3M discontinued production of the two PFAS chemicals most clearly linked to serious health conditions almost two decades ago. In recent years, prodded along by plaintiffs’ lawyers and the threat of aggressive action by state and federal environmental agencies, it has taken significant steps to evaluate and clean up some of the many dumps containing its waste in Morgan and Lawrence counties.

A major step forward came in 2019 when 3M paid $35 million to settle claims by West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority, money the authority used to build a high-tech filtration plant to remove PFAS from its drinking water. Last year the company paid $1.25 million to buy the former Brookhaven Middle School property, which along with Aquadome Recreation Center sits on a closed city landfill that contains 3M waste.

In July of last year 3M took one of the most significant steps forward when it entered into a consent order with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management that requires it to perform extensive evaluation and remediation of the many sites where 3M’s PFAS-contaminated waste can be found.

The settlements approved by Decatur, Morgan County and DU last week continue 3M’s progress. While cash payments to the governmental entities was a sweetener, possibly the most important aspect of the settlements was 3M’s agreement to place liners on 10 closed cells in the Morgan County Regional Landfill so as to reduce the amount of contaminated leachate that has long ended up in the Tennessee River.

As much progress as has been made in recent years, much more would be possible if ADEM or the EPA provided enforceable limits on the concentrations of PFAS allowable in drinking water and in wastewater discharges.

For decades 3M, unhindered by regulations, chose profit over safety. Neither 3M nor any other industry should be permitted that luxury in the future.

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