Local water plant managers say they have tested for two toxic chemicals that have some members of Congress at odds with the Environmental Protection Agency, which appears reluctant to regulate the substances under the Clean Water Act.
According to a report on the news website POLITICO, EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler has signed off on a yet unpublished decision not to regulate chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS, which were used for decades in products including Teflon, military firefighting foam, water resistant clothing and other products
The chemicals have been found in the drinking water of millions of Americans and have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer.
Florence, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, Cherokee and Colbert County all pull water from the Tennessee River, but the amounts of the chemicals found locally have been minuscule.
Muscle Shoals Water Department Manager James Vance said they have tested for PFOA and PFOS, but not on a regular basis. He said the chemicals are considered unregulated contaminants by the EPA and are not part of the plant's regular testing schedule.
"Unregulated contaminants are contaminants the EPA knows are out there, but they don't have limits on them," Vance said. "They don't know the impacts yet. They (EPA) send requests for us to do that in order to develop limits. We do test for them periodically."
Florence Water Department Manager Mike Doyle said testing for PFOA and PFOS are part of the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR), which EPA uses to collect data on substance that are suspected of being present in drinking water, but do not have health-based standards to set limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
He said each round of the UCMR may last a couple of years. He said Florence is now in round four. Each round involves testing for different groups of unregulated contaminants, he said.
"The reason you haven't seen any (limits) is because it takes years to gather enough information to do the health studies to get to the point where you can set limits on anything," Doyle said. "They get the information from people like us."
He said the levels of PFOA and PFOS detected in the Florence tests barely registered.
"We haven't had an issues with them here," Vance said.
The issue is more prevalent in the Tennessee River near Decatur, where a 3M plant is located. The company is facing 70 federal lawsuits involving PFOA and PFOS contamination, but two suits related to the 3M plant in Decatur will remain in north Alabama thanks to the efforts of Tennessee Riverkeeper.
“The Environmental Protection Agency is mandated by law to protect Americans from toxic pollution in our drinking water, including PFOS and PFOA," Tennessee Riverkeeper Founder and Executive Director David Whiteside said. "EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is not acting in America’s best interest by refusing to regulate PFC pollution as mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Eastern Colbert County received a scare in 2016 when water produced by the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority showed high levels of PFOA and PFOS. Colbert County purchases water from the West Lawrence Water Authority, which purchases water from West Morgan-East Lawrence.
Colbert County Engineer John Bedford said the county stopped purchasing water from the West Lawrence Water Authority until the numbers went down.
"At the point where we buy from them it was at 70 parts per trillion," he said. "They did not go above 70 parts per trillion."
At the time, the EPA had issued a "Health Advisory Limit" of 70 ppt for the substances.
At the County Commission's request, Bedford also tested water at the county's water production facility near Barton since it pulls water from the Tennessee River. He said he did not detect a significant presence of the chemicals at the plant.
Bedford said PFOA and PFOS is prevalent in many products. The chemicals are no longer manufactured in the U.S.
Customers of the various Shoals water producers can see results for about 100 known substances that are tested for on a regular basis in each producer's annual consumer confidence reports.
Doyle noted that when he started working in the water business, the smallest level of detection was reported in parts per million. Now, he said, they can detect substances in parts per billion and parts per trillion.
Whiteside pointed out that Wheeler was a lobbyist for the coal industry before he was appointed to his leadership role with the EPA.
"He has consistently shown disdain for regulations that protect Americans' public health," Whiteside said. "Once again, the EPA has been captured by polluters and I am concerned that our nation will continue to witness these actions that put profits over people."