Tennessee Riverkeeper to sue 3M, Decatur over chemicals found in river
By Dennis Pillion | dpillion@al.com
on September 23, 2015

Environmental advocacy group Tennessee Riverkeeper announced Wednesday that it intends to sue chemical manufacturer 3M Company, the city of Decatur and others over what it called “an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment” relating to disposal of the chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and others in and around Decatur.

Tennessee Riverkeeper distributed notices of intent to sue under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to 3M, the City of Decatur, BFI Waste Systems of Alabama, and Decatur Utilities this week by certified mail. The RCRA requires 90-day written notice before a citizen lawsuit can be filed.

The notice alleges that PFOA and PFOS were improperly disposed of at the 3M plant and at local landfills, and that the chemicals have leached into the Tennessee River and the Wheeler Reservoir, a popular fishing location.
The compounds were manufactured in Decatur to create products like ScotchGuard and Teflon coatings for consumer products. They do not break down easily in the environment and can bioaccumulate in people and fish.
Tennessee Riverkeeper claims that those chemicals have been linked to kidney cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and ulcerative colitis.

“Even low concentrations of the chemicals in water can translate to high concentrations in the fish, especially bass and catfish,” said Tennessee Riverkeeper executive director David Whiteside. “Many citizens of North Alabama eat fish from the Tennessee River.”

Whiteside said the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has placed parts of Wheeler Reservoir on the impaired waters list due to the presence of PFOS, and the Alabama Department of Public Health has included Wheeler Lake on its list of fish consumption advisories.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies PFOS and PFOA as emerging contaminants, according to a fact sheet on the EPA web site. That designation indicates “a chemical or material that is characterized by a perceived, potential, or real threat to human health or the environment or by a lack of published health standards.”

The 3M Company completed a voluntary phase-out of PFOS in 2002, but the notice of intent to sue alleges that the compounds continue to be discharged into the Tennessee River, and eventually Wheeler Reservoir through treated wastewater disposal and leaching from landfills located along the river.

The notice of intent to sue claims that “3M has also transported waste off-site to nearby landfills, the largest volume to the City of Decatur-Morgan County Sanitary Landfill, owned by the City of Decatur. Waste was also transported to the A.J. Morris Landfill (Morris Farms Landfill), in Hillsboro, Alabama, owned by BFI Waste Systems of Alabama, LLC. Waste was also received by the now closed Bert Jeffries Landfill (also called the Browns Ferry Road Site), which is now owned by 3M.”

Liquid waste from these landfills is collected and transported to the Dry Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, owned by Decatur Utilities, which the Riverkeeper group says does not have adequate capacity to treat the water for those chemicals before it is released into the river.

Tennessee Riverkeeper is asking that 3M increase its efforts to clean up its on-site groundwater contamination, that groundwater at the landfill sites be mitigated, that leachate from the two landfills that collect leachate be treated before discharge to the Dry Creek WWTP, and that the WWTP treat its discharge to remove these chemicals before discharge to the Tennessee River. Riverkeeper also asks that 3M be held responsible for the required remediation at the off-site facilities.

In an emailed response, representatives of 3M said the company has already worked to clean up the area around the Decatur plant.

“Our company has voluntarily undertaken numerous projects to help reduce the potential release of these materials into the local environment,” said Robin Higgs, manager of 3M’s Decatur plant. “We have made substantial progress and will complete further actions in the near future.

“The activity you currently see represents ongoing progress in our commitment to isolate these materials from the environment. All of this work is being done in coordination between 3M, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, and other regulatory agencies.”

Dr. Carol Ley, vice president and corporate medical director of 3M’s Medical Department, said the company had not observed health complications related to these chemicals among its own workers in 30 years despite close monitoring.

“We do not believe PFCs such as PFOA and PFOS present any harm to human health at levels they are typically found in the environment or in human blood,” Ley said.

*This post was edited at 4:48 p.m. to include comments from 3M.
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