Extensive ongoing efforts by 3M Co. to deal with chemicals once disposed of in Decatur and Lawrence County included the erection of a privacy fence last week around property it purchased recently that is contaminated by its own chemical waste.
Lawrence County resident Beth McCarley said hiding the remediation efforts west of Trinity behind a fence is not reassuring to a community frightened of the invisible and indestructible "forever chemicals" once manufactured at 3M's Decatur plant and dumped in Decatur and Lawrence County.
The chemicals briefly triggered the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority in 2016 to advise its customers not to drink its water.
"I am not confident at all with 3M. They have proved themselves not to be for the people, just for the almighty dollar," said McCarley, who has become an informal grassroots coordinator of people in the county concerned about their exposure to the chemicals. “They shouldn’t be putting up fences. They should be telling us exactly how they’re going to solve this mess. We won't know what they're doing behind that fence.”
The fence is one step in a wide-ranging cleanup effort that led 3M in 2008 to discontinue the manufacture and use of the chemicals, that last year led it to purchase two contaminated local properties, that last month led seven company representatives to meet with state officials, and that includes an ongoing effort to blanket hundreds of acres of contaminated fields at its Decatur facility with liners.
Waste from 3M's manufacturing process for decades contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS. Two PFAS chemicals used by 3M until 2008 for products including Scotchgard are PFOA and PFOS. They have received special scrutiny from scientists, health professionals and environmentalists in recent years.
Asked for details about the scope of its efforts to remove the chemicals from Lawrence and Morgan counties, 3M declined, providing a short statement instead.
“3M works with federal, state and local authorities regarding environmental aspects of our operation in Decatur," according to the statement issued to The Decatur Daily. "The level of PFOA and PFOS in the Tennessee River has decreased, and it will continue to decrease because of steps that 3M and others have taken and will continue to take in the future.”
The presence of PFOA and PFOS in the river has raised concerns for many, and has resulted in numerous lawsuits against 3M by hundreds of plaintiffs.
West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority (WMEL) draws its raw drinking water from the river 13 miles downstream of 3M’s Decatur plant, which for decades used and disposed of the chemicals. In 2016, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a nonbinding health advisory for the two chemicals, the authority built a $4 million carbon filtration plant. Conventional water treatment plants do not remove the chemicals.
Most of the lawsuits focus on studies finding ingestion of the chemicals is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, increases in cholesterol, thyroid disease, decreased response to vaccines, asthma, decreased fertility and decreased birth weight.
McCarley said many customers of WMEL blame the 3M chemicals for health conditions, and many now drink only bottled water. Dozens have alleged in lawsuits they contracted specific diseases from the water, and class action lawsuits assert claims on behalf of the 53,000 people who obtain their water from WMEL.
High levels of PFOS in fish tissue have resulted in the Alabama Department of Public Health issuing consumption advisories for much of Wheeler Reservoir. The state does not test fish for PFOA.
While 3M declined to provide details, some of its efforts to remove PFOA and PFOS and to reduce the migration of the chemicals into the river are apparent.
Massive cleanup effort
A massive effort to prevent PFOA and PFOS from entering the river and groundwater from its Decatur facility is visible from State Docks Road, which runs along the east side of the plant. Acres of sheeting have been placed over 3M-owned fields.
“Pursuant to a permit issued by the (Alabama Department of Environmental Management), for approximately 20 years, the company incorporated its wastewater treatment plant sludge containing PFAS in fields at its Decatur facility,” 3M said last month in its annual report to shareholders.
While 3M would not provide details of its work at the Decatur site to The Daily, documents the company has filed with ADEM — and which were obtained by The Daily — suggest that work is extensive.
Last month, seven 3M officials made a presentation to 13 ADEM employees and one official with the Alabama Department of Public Health summarizing its ongoing remediation efforts targeting PFOA and PFOS on the Decatur site and at three off-site locations. The remediation efforts are pursuant to a 2008 “remedial action agreement” between ADEM and 3M to reduce the discharge of the water pollutants.
3M last year completed the installation of flexible membrane liners over 287 acres where the company had previously placed contaminated sludge. The purpose of the liners is to prevent rain from leaching the chemicals into the groundwater and then into the river.
All but 27 acres of the liners have been topped by soil and vegetation, and 3M told ADEM it would cover the remaining acreage along State Docks Road this year.
The work also included excavation to prevent surface water from leaving the 287-acre sludge area, including the removal of 5,000 cubic yards of soil to create slopes on the perimeter of the property.
Remediation efforts at the 3M plant also include the monitoring of PFOA and PFOS levels in groundwater. The company samples 48 monitoring wells annually.
3M also has 10 groundwater recovery wells on its property. Once groundwater is extracted, 3M uses a granular activated carbon system — the same technology used by WMEL for drinking water — to filter out PFOA and PFOS. This year, 3M told ADEM, it would expand its groundwater treatment system to include more wells.
In 2018, the company also tested surface water from 11 locations along State Docks Road.
Lawrence County dumps
3M also is seeking to reduce PFOA and PFOS levels in three off-site dumps in Lawrence County that in the past received 3M waste, it told ADEM. As part of its remediation efforts, 3M purchased the properties from the landowners.
One property, on Lawrence County 358 west of Trinity, was the subject of a since-settled lawsuit against 3M. In the complaint filed in January 2018, John Sharp Jr. and Tammie Sharp alleged they discovered the dump in 2017 — 11 years after purchasing the 20-acre property — when the Tennessee Valley Authority cleared timber before installing high-voltage lines.
“Based on the markings of containers found in the illegal dump on the Sharp property and other constituents in the waste materials found in the illegal dump, 3M was the generator of, and either disposed of or arranged for the disposal of, wastes containing PFOA and PFOS on the Sharp property,” according to the complaint.
3M bought the property in August, according to its report to ADEM, and may purchase another 100 acres north of the property this year.
The company said the Sharp property contains a permitted landfill that received waste from 3M and other Decatur industries. The landfill was closed in 1981 after a nearby private well was found to have high metal concentrations. ADEM and the EPA supervised initial cleanup of the site, which was focused on metals and volatile compounds, from 1982 to 1995.
3M advised ADEM its initial remediation steps this year, now focused on PFOA and PFOS, will include demolishing the house, clearing trees and installing a gate and fence.
Another dump site is on Lawrence County 222, also west of Trinity. 3M purchased this 11-acre property in August; it has evaluated the flow of surface water from the site and has covered exposed waste with plastic sheeting. The company last week was clearing trees and erecting the privacy fence that concerned McCarley.
"We are working with ADEM to develop investigation and sampling plans, so we can understand what is in both sites," 3M spokeswoman Fanna Haile-Selassie said Friday. "Aside from removing some trees to gain access to the site and construct fencing around the work zone, we do not intend to disturb the waste material until the sampling and initial investigation has been completed."
A third dump site 3M is preparing for remediation is off Browns Ferry Road in Lawrence County, near Mallard Fox Creek.
Push for state action
Is 3M doing enough to clean up the contaminants? Some say it’s not, and are asking the state Attorney General’s Office to take legal action forcing it to do more.
The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority filed its own lawsuit against 3M in 2015, but it has since pushed for the attorney general to file suit. Referencing a lawsuit involving PFOA and PFOS filed by the state of Minnesota against 3M — a lawsuit that settled last year for $850 million — the general manager of WMEL began the push for state action in October.
“If the elected officials in 3M’s home state of Minnesota were willing to stand up against their state’s largest company, isn’t it time that Alabama’s elected officials take action to clean up our state’s largest river and to protect the Alabamians who rely on the river for their drinking water supply?” wrote Don Sims in a letter to Attorney General Steve Marshall and Gov. Kay Ivey.
“Please do not continue to stand on the sidelines while corporate polluters like 3M get away with endangering the health and well-being of our citizens,” Sims continued.
In the letter, Sims said the authority’s lawyers met with former Attorney General Luther Strange in July 2016 and requested that he intervene in WMEL’s lawsuit against 3M.
Asked if it is recommending that the state attorney general take action against 3M in connection with its disposal of PFOA and PFOS, ADEM last week said it “continues to communicate with the Attorney General’s Office regarding this matter.”
Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office also confirmed discussions involving 3M.
“The Attorney General’s Office has been in communication with both the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and officials with the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority concerning the water quality issue,” said Communications Director Mike Lewis. “We are also following regulatory developments at the Environmental Protection Agency. We are unable to comment on any possible litigation.”
Tennessee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit focused on cleaning the Tennessee River, has filed one of the many lawsuits against 3M. Its lawsuit seeks to force 3M to clean up the river and to take more aggressive steps to prevent ongoing contamination of the river from previously dumped chemicals.
David Whiteside, its director, said he has no confidence that either 3M or the attorney general will take the needed action.
“We’re concerned that these chemicals are still present in our community, that they’re in the Wheeler Reservoir, and that they’re in our fish,” he said. “There are a lot of people in north Alabama who are eating fish from the Wheeler Reservoir.”
Whiteside recounted his effort to speak with a Spanish speaker fishing at the reservoir last week. In broken Spanish, Whiteside tried to explain the risks. Nearby English-speaking fishermen knew from media accounts not to eat the fish they caught, but were giving their fish to the Spanish speaker.
“I believe they were doing it to try to help the guy out, but in effect they’re slowly poisoning him and his family,” Whiteside said.
“3M has to clean up its mess, including the Wheeler Reservoir, to make the fish, and obviously the drinking water, safe again. 3M has a lot of work to do to clean up this mess that they made.”