The 3M Company and Alabama regulators have entered into a consent agreement that will require the company to clean up pollution from “forever chemicals” from its plant in Decatur and other sites in the Tennessee Valley area.
The chemicals are in a class of environmentally persistent pollutants known as per- and polyfluiorinated substances and commonly referred to as PFAS chemicals. 3M has produced PFAS chemicals for decades at Decatur. The compounds are used in non-stick and non-absorbent materials such as cookware, fabric protectants and firefighting foam. They do not break down in the environment.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management announced the consent order today. It requires the company to clean up the chemicals and commits it to assessing sites in north Alabama counties to determine the presence of PFAS and take steps to reduce their levels.
ADEM Director Lance LeFleur stated that the order is the nation’s “most far-reaching and significant enforcement action to date” concerning PFAS. Congress has pressed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop national standards for the chemicals. LeFleur said the agreement “puts Alabama ahead of the game in regulating these harmful compounds,” and increases the department’s control over the substances.
Data from 3M’s clean up, monitoring, and testing can be used by the EPA in developing safe federal standards for the chemicals.
David Whiteside, founder of the watchdog organization Tennessee Riverkeeper, applauded the consent agreement but said it “is not the end of this.” He pledged to continue advocacy to “force 3M and other polluters to finally fix the hazardous (pollution) problems in the Tennessee Valley.”
Michelle Howell, 3M Decatur plant manager, agreed it’s not over. “3M takes pride in being part of the Decatur community for nearly 60 years, and the company values its role as a good neighbor and steward of the environment,” she said. “During the last 12 months, we have identified areas where we can do more and better, and we’re committed to doing our part in our operations moving forward.”
3M, in a statement Friday, said the consent order will “build upon 3M’s existing commitment to identify, investigate and perform appropriate remediation of legacy contamination of soil and groundwater … . To date, 3M has invested more than $100 million to address PFAS at the Decatur site, including a significant cap and containment project to manage PFAS-impacted soil and groundwater, and the installation of a granular activated carbon system to remove PFAS from ground water.”
The company has launched a new webpage to communicate about its actions.
For years, 3M resisted releasing information on the pollutants it discharged into the river and dumped in waste sites across multiple counties. Public pressure about potential health risks from the chemicals finally led the company to address contamination for which it is responsible. In 2019, 3M paid $35 million in a settlement to the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority to install an advanced water filtration system.
Earlier this year, 3M CEO Mike Roman said, “Being an environmentally responsible company is core to 3M, which is why we are committed to working with our neighbors in Decatur and around the country to develop PFAS solutions that are guided by sound science, responsibility and transparency.”
That came after 3M admitted to unlawfully releasing PFAS for 10 years into the Tennessee River. The disclosure by Huntsville television station WHNT News 19 resulted in Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey prodding LeFleur’s department into finding a solution to the 3M pollution.
The consent agreement is “interim,” which LeFleur stated means that it is immediately enforceable, but additional requirements can be placed “based on the data collected.”
While several other states have sued 3M over PFAS in their states, ADEM chose to pursue a consent order as “the best way at this time to ensure the safety of Alabamians,” according to ADEM general counsel Shawn Sibley on Friday. “Lawsuits can be tied up in the courts for years, which can delay work to clean up the sites and safeguard public health,” he said. “This is the quickest and surest route to accomplish the goals of reducing public exposure to PFAS now and preventing exposure in the future, while holding 3M accountable.”