The city of Decatur is a defendant in lawsuits involving the presence of industrial toxins in Wheeler Reservoir, in downstream water supplies, in groundwater and closed landfills. Called PFAS, for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the chemicals that once served as a backbone for Decatur’s burgeoning riverfront industries are increasingly recognized for their toxic and possibly carcinogenic properties.
The temptation whenever lawyers get involved is to circle the wagons and keep the public at bay. State laws that generally require transparency carve out exceptions allowing governmental bodies to hold secretive meetings and to refrain from making documents public when they pertain to litigation.
That’s the out that many elected officials embrace. No law requires them to disclose information related to pending lawsuits, so they stonewall. “On the advice of my attorney,” they say, and then shroud themselves in secrecy.
But some council members took a stand Monday, recognizing that no law requires secrecy, and that the pervasive contamination is an issue of great import to Decatur citizens.
The plan Monday was to hold an executive session updating council members on the pending environmental lawsuits filed against Decatur, 3M Co., Daikin America LLC and others. But Councilmen Billy Jackson and Charles Kirby balked. Jackson worried the meeting would stray into topics inappropriate for an executive session. Kirby doubted an executive session was needed at all.
“I suspect most of it isn’t super-secret stuff, and it’s stuff that the public already knows,” Kirby said. “It gives the public the impression we’re not doing our business in front of the public.”
The lawyers had planned to require each council member to sign a broad confidentiality agreement before they were updated on the lawsuits. While Council President Paige Bibbee did not object to the executive session, she refused to sign an agreement prohibiting her from communicating serious issues to her constituents.
“It’s my job to disseminate information to the public and other council members, and that (non-disclosure agreement) would limit my ability to do that,” Bibbee said.
She said the non-disclosure statement was too close to a gag order “that would cover everything up.”
The industrial chemicals once used for such products as Scotchgard and nonstick coatings are a huge issue for Decatur residents and others affected by the waste disposed of over the decades by Decatur chemical plants. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to a wide variety of ailments, including kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility and decreased birth weight. The chemicals have been detected in breast milk and umbilical cord blood.
Leaking from landfills and dumps, the chemicals end up in groundwater, creeks, Wheeler Reservoir and soil. They’ve been found at the old landfill that is buried beneath the former Brookhaven Middle School and the city-owned Aquadome Recreation Center. They contaminated drinking water downstream of Decatur.
Informing constituents on issues affecting their health and environment is central to the duties of Decatur elected officials. That duty does not disappear just because the risks are so extreme they end up in litigation.
Kudos to council members for embracing transparency over legal convenience. Officials’ solemn responsibility to the people they represent should not be conditioned on the preferred legal strategies of their lawyers.