By Dennis Pillion
June 24, 2016

Environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force 3M and several other entities to take steps to clean up chemical contamination of the river and Wheeler Reservoir with man-made substances PFOS and PFOA, claiming that the chemicals were an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment.”

The lawsuit, filed under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, does not seek monetary damages for the pollution but seeks to compel 3M to remediate landfills and onsite disposal facilities which they say are still leaching the chemicals into the Tennessee River.

“We don’t mind 3M making profitable products – but, we cannot tolerate the defendants putting profit ahead of the health of people, the environment and the River,” David Whiteside, Tennessee Riverkeeper’s founder and executive director, said in a news release.

Attorney William A. Brewer III, counsel for 3M, said the lawsuit was without merit and that 3M operated in compliance with environmental laws.

“The company voluntarily exited these chemistries more than a decade ago and, since that time, has worked in close collaboration with state regulators to address the environmental presence of these compounds,” Brewer said via email. “We believe the actions of the Tennessee Riverkeeper are built on an incorrect premise – that the mere presence of these chemicals equals harm. Fortunately, the statute has a prevailing party provision.

“3M will defend its record of environmental stewardship, and will continue to work in close collaboration with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Alabama Department of Public Health and other community stakeholders taking steps to address the environmental presence of these compounds.”

Brewer also said 3M believes the health concerns related to the chemicals are overstated.

Dr. Carol Ley, vice president and corporate medical director for 3M, 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.

The Riverkeeper lawsuit also names multiple local landfill operators and the city of Decatur, which operates a nearby wastewater treatment plant as defendants. The Riverkeeper group says that liquid runoff from landfills containing high levels of PFOA and PFOS are piped to Decatur’s Dry Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant, which the Riverkeeper group says “has inadequate treatment capabilities for these chemicals and, therefore, discharges harmful amounts into the Tennessee River.”

Attorney Barnes Lovelace — who works for the firm representing the city of Decatur, Morgan County and Decatur Utilities in this matter — issued a statement on behalf of his clients.

“The city of Decatur and Morgan County have asserted that the companies who generated PFCs which were discharged into Decatur Utilities sewer system and placed in the landfill must be responsible for any expenses incurred by Decatur Utilities and the Landfill to reduce the levels of PFCs discharged,” the statement read. “The City of Decatur and Morgan County firmly believe that any costs and expenses that may be incurred to reduce the levels of PFCs should not be paid for by the customers of the Landfill or the city’s sewer system.”

Lovelace said his clients have been studying methods of reducing the amounts of the chemicals discharged from the landfill and the treatment plant, even though no EPA or ADEM regulation requires them to do so.

Tennessee Riverkeeper filed a notice of intent to sue back in September over the PFC contamination of the river.

Since then, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory warning that exposure to PFOS and PFOA in drinking water could lead to negative health effects over time. That led one utility to recommend its customers not drink tap water, a recommendation that was finally lifted Thursday.

The chemicals were manufactured at 3M’s Decatur facility for years until being phased out of production in 2002. They were used to create non-stick or stain-resistant coatings on a wide range of consumer products including Scotchgard and Teflon. The chemicals are highly resistant to breaking down in nature and can accumulate in the tissues of humans and fish.

The Alabama Department of Public Health has issued fish consumption advisories for species caught in Wheeler Reservoir due to PFOS content.

Whiteside said the Riverkeeper case was different from a class action suit filed by the West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority and its customers against 3M because the RCRA case is not seeking monetary compensation from 3M, only that the company acts to remove the substances from the river.

Tennessee Riverkeeper is part of the larger Waterkeeper Alliance group led by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

“The rights to clean air and water and to a safe secure environment are fundamental civil rights and as with all pollution, the injuries from 3M’s pollution land hardest on the backs of Alabama’s poor and minority communities,” Kennedy said in a news release.

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