By Evan Belanger
evan.belanger@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2439. Twitter @evanbelanger

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management discovered 3M Co. was underreporting its discharge of potentially toxic chemicals into the Tennessee River before 3M notified the regulatory agency of the error, an ADEM spokeswoman said Friday.

The comment came in response to questions about whether ADEM had adequately reviewed 3M’s discharge reports for the chemicals, known as perfluorochemicals or PFCs.

It also appeared to conflict with 3M’s earlier statements on how the error came to light.

In an April 20 letter, a 3M official advised ADEM that the company’s Decatur facility had underreported its discharge of PFCs to the river by a factor of 1,000 for more than three years — from late 2012 to mid 2016 — and that it had discovered the discrepancy during an internal review.

“When 3M recognized the issue, we advised ADEM, and corrections were made to the underlying quarterly reports in question,” William Brewer III, legal counsel to 3M, said of the discrepancy last week.

When asked Friday whether ADEM was actually reviewing the discharge reports provided by 3M, Lynn Battle, ADEM’s chief of External Affairs, said the department reviews the data for trends and noticed the discrepancy before 3M reported it.

She said ADEM had encouraged 3M to review its records, resulting in the April letter.

Asked about the comment, Brewer said in a statement Friday that “ADEM initially mentioned the issue to 3M and the company undertook an investigation that verified a discrepancy.”

Despite findings that 3M had vastly underreported its discharge, the department took no enforcement action against the company. Battle said the company’s discharge permit establishes no numerical limits for PFC output by 3M, only requiring that the output be monitored.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a non-regulatory health advisory indicating the combined presence of two PFCs — perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) — in drinking water can cause human health problems over a lifetime of exposure in doses as small as 70 parts per trillion.

However, Battle noted, neither the EPA nor ADEM has approved a suggested or mandatory limit for the discharge of PFCs into waterways in order to protect the public, drinking water, and the environment.

“These findings confirm that 3M operated with transparency and integrity,” Brewer said.

While 3M maintains the chemicals are not harmful at levels found in the local environment, the lack of clear discharge limits has not stopped multiple groups from filing lawsuits against 3M and others, alleging the chemicals create a public nuisance and, in some cases, caused serious health problems.

One lawsuit alleges the presence of PFOS and PFOA in the drinking water of West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority caused cancer and other health problems for at least 24 water system customers.

Last year, the water authority, which draws its raw water 13 miles downstream from 3M, issued a temporary no-drink warning when levels of PFOS and PFOA in its finished drinking water exceeded EPA safety recommendations.

Parties involved in the lawsuits were critical of ADEM for not taking a firmer stance on PFCs. Last month, officials in North Carolina sought to revoke the discharge permit of the Chemours Co. after it allowed the release of GenX, a newer generation of chemical meant to replace PFOA.

Carl Cole, an attorney for the water authority, said regulators in Alabama are not following the same example to protect the public.

“Here, ADEM appears to be OK not only with PFOA and PFOS, both carcinogens, in the water supply, but also with numerous other similar PFCs for which the toxicity has not been thoroughly tested,” said Cole.

Under EPA guidelines, there is “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential” for the chemicals, and the World Health Organization classifies PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

David Whiteside, president of the environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper, which is also suing 3M and others, questioned why ADEM had reached out to 3M instead of taking enforcement action against the company for underreporting its discharge.

“It is a little odd that ADEM caught a major polluter lying by a factor of 1,000 and made a courtesy call on them basically,” he said.

“We respectfully disagree,” Battle said in response to criticism that ADEM had failed to protect the public by not catching the reporting error sooner.

3M reported to ADEM it had inadvertently reported its discharge monitoring reports in milligrams per liter instead of micrograms per liter due to a change in reporting metrics.

Battle said it collects the discharge data from 3M to establish a baseline in the event a standard is established in the future.

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