North Alabama residents want an answer. Have years of drinking Tennessee River water been safe?

UPDATE:   The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a new health advisory on long-term exposure to PFOA and PFOS contaminants in drinking water.  Tests of water from the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority, featured in this story, showed PFOA and PFOS contaminants above the level that might cause health problems, EPA says.

A new question of safe drinking water is playing out in North Alabama.  There, residents and the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against 3M, maker of products from Scotchgard to Post-It Notes, in connection with toxins in the water supply.

The EPA is expected to release new guidelines on safe levels of the contaminants this spring.

There’s conflict brewing over who might foot the bill if a cleanup is in order.

Larry Watkins says contaminant level in blood test was "sky high"
Larry Watkins says contaminant level in blood test was “sky high”

Larry Watkins has lived near Hillsborough, just outside of Decatur, all his life. So has most of his family. He and his wife have 5 acres, about a mile from the Tennessee River. Watkins, 66, has worked over the years in construction, and in a nearby plastics factory.

A few months ago, he went to the doctor and found he has high levels of the contaminants, PFOA and PFOS, in his blood. Those are byproducts of chemicals created by 3M to make non-stick surfaces. “My level was sky high,” he says.  Three times what’s considered safe by the EPA, to be exact. He also has high cholesterol.

“I’m taking cholesterol medicine,” he says, “But it don’t seem to be working because it be the same every time I go back and forth to my doctor.”

Inside treatment plant that processes river water
Inside treatment plant that processes river water

For decades, 3M manufactured these compounds and discharged them into the Tennessee River. Now, lawyers representing Watkins and up to 30,000 other customers of the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority say health issues ranging from cancer to high cholesterol are tied to elevated levels of these chemicals in the water supply. Carl Cole, an attorney in Decatur on the case, says solutions for his clients could range from individual water filters and compensation for medical bills to construction of a new state-of-the-art water treatment plant.

Cole says a lot is up to the EPA and its new guidelines.

“They have, for lack of a better term, guidelines that state how much of these chemicals can be exposed to over a short period of time,” Cole says.

The EPA limits are 400 parts per trillion. But Cole says the issue for folks here involves exposure over a lifetime.

“Because these people who have to drink this water every day don’t have short term exposure to this. They have long-term exposure to it,” Cole says. “And that’s why we’re seeing levels that are four and five times what is the guideline acceptable amount through the EPA. There’s really no long-term guidelines.”

That should change this spring when the EPA is expected to issue a new health advisory for PFOA.  That’ll give guidance as to the concentration in drinking water “at which adverse health effects are not anticipated to occur over a lifetime of exposure,” according to Melissa Harris, press secretary for the EPA.

3M was the primary manufacturer of PFO’s for decades. Both the EPA and the company note that 3M’s phase-out of the compound was voluntary. 3M maintains that in years of medical testing, its employees have shown no ill effects as a result of exposure to PFOS or PFOA. The company sent this statement: “In more than 30 years of medical surveillance we have observed no adverse health effects in our employees resulting from their exposure to PFOS or PFOA,” says Dr. Carol Ley, vice president and corporate medical director, 3M Medical Department. “This is very important since the level of exposure in the general population is much lower than that of production employees who worked directly with these materials.”

Photo by Gigi Douban

The company stopped making the chemicals at its Decatur facility. In 2004, 3M signed an agreement with the EPA and later with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which include efforts to reduce or eliminate the presence of these compounds in the Decatur area. This remediation project started 10 years ago and runs through 2019.

But the problem, Cole says, is that these substances stay in the water supply, years after they’re no longer being produced. Few know this better than Don Sims, general manager of the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority Treatment Plant, where 600 million gallons of water are treated each year.

“We didn’t put the stuff in the water,” Sims says. “Whoever put it in the water should be required to clean it up.”  The lawsuit is seeking that 3M pay for any required cleanup.

Sims says levels of contaminants like the ones 3M discharged into the Tennessee River years ago are still at times dangerously high. He’s worried that if the EPA issues new guidelines on acceptable levels of these pollutants, the water won’t be considered safe to drink. Not without a very costly cleanup.

In the grand scheme of all the water that’s treated at the plant, the amount of contaminants is minuscule, he says, which makes a cleanup all the more daunting. “Think about testing a dissolved material where you’re looking for point-zero-zero parts per trillion,” Sims says. “To put it in perspective, we make 1 billion 600 million gallons of water per year.” And in that year’s worth of treatment, Sims says, the EPA might expect the water authority to remove what would amount to a quart.

“It would cost us somewhere between $20 million and $100 million to do a capital expenditure to clean that quart out of the water. And then it would probably take another additional million dollars a year in operational cost, to get that quart every year out of the drinking water,” he says.

Photo by Gigi Douban

Sims gets calls from residents who are concerned. His answer is always the same: “We meet all the regulatory requirements and health advisories right now,” he says. “If the water’s not safe to drink, I’m gonna tell the people.”

In the meantime, residents like Larry Watkins will keep drinking the water. Watkins, who’s retired, wants to raise cattle. I ask him whether the water situation could affect the cows, and he thinks for a moment.

“Well, that’s, I don’t know,” he says. “I hadn’t even thought about that till you mentioned it.”

You can read WBHM’s story on this issue at: Is Our Water Safe? North Alabama Residents Sue 3M Over Drinking Water Contamination