Drinking Water Worries: ADEM Conducts New Tests. North Alabama System Seeks Governor’s Help. Callers Flood County Health Departments.

Coosa River Basin. Provided by: Donn Rodekohr, Auburn University, Department of Agronomy and Soils
Coosa River Basin. Provided by: Donn Rodekohr, Auburn University, Department of Agronomy and Soils

Representatives of North Alabama’s West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority met with Gov. Robert Bentley’s staff Friday to request bottled water and other alternative sources of water for 100,000 customers, who’ve been told not to drink the system’s water for now.

The system is operating under an advisory from the Environmental Protection Agency that its water has unsafe levels of PFOS and PFOA contaminants.

Bentley issued a statement saying appropriate state agencies are addressing the water authority’s situation and his office will be looking into the matter further.

Also, water authority attorney Jeff Friedman asked in a letter that Daikin and 3M, industries that have discharged PFOS and PFOA, provide bottled water for those affected by the advisory.  “It’s not enough for 3M to say they’re not making it (PFOS and PFOA) anymore or that they had a permit to discharge it,” Friedman said.

The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority is the first water producer down river from the 3M plant. It produces water for customers of its own system and for those on other systems that buy water from the authority.

The EPA on May 21 said tests from eight Alabama water systems showed water they were distributing had exceeded newly established safe levels for PFOS and PFOA. PFOS and PFOA are contaminants produced in making such consumer products as nonstick cookware, carpets and waterproof clothing.  Industries have discharged waste containing these byproducts into waterways.

The Alabama Department of Health within a few days lifted the EPA advisory for six of the systems, saying more recent information showed their drinking water was within safe standards.  West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority and West Lawrence Water Co-op are the two systems to which the EPA advisory still is being applied.

Read more about contamination concerns in this BirminghamWatch report.

Despite the health department action, the new EPA water quality standard and the department’s advisories continue to generate reaction in the state.

  • The board of North Alabama’s West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority, in an emergency session Thursday, approved a $4 million charcoal water filtration system to be in place by September, according to Friedman, attorney for the board. “It will make our water safe to meet all standards, the strictest standards,” Friedman said, “but it’s not a permanent solution.” Charcoal wears out and will need to be replaced if it is to keep PFOS and PFOA out of the water supply, he said. Water authority manager Don Sims at a press conference Thursday told people he has no confidence in the safety of the water at this point and urged them not to drink it.
  • The Alabama Department of Environmental Management has begun four weeks of testing in the Coosa River basin, taking its own samples to determine whether contaminants in drinking water from several systems remain at safe levels. Recent self-reported analyses from these systems showed them to be within EPA’s recommended levels. Coosa basin water systems on the EPA advisory list included Gadsden Water Works and Sewer Board; Centre Water and Sewer Board; Northeast Alabama Water District; Southside Water Works; and Rainbow City Utilities.
  • An eighth Alabama water system on EPA’s advisory list, Vinemont Anon West Point Water Systems, announced that it had switched all of its customers exclusively to water provided by the City of Cullman. The Alabama Department of Health has lifted the EPA advisory for this system. Before the health advisory, V.A.W. had been a dual system provider, with some of its 5,100 customers taking water from the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority and some being served by the City of Cullman. Donna Gossett, office manager with the V.A.W. Water System, said they were able to supply all customers with Cullman water. It was the simplest fix, she said.
  • ADEM said it will work with EPA to establish a longer-term plan for ensuring that the state’s drinking water remains safe. Lynn Battle, spokesman for ADEM, said that PFOA and PFOS contaminants in the Tennessee River basin downstream of Decatur – where West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority is located –historically have tested above the new EPA safe level, though the levels have declined. The PFOA and PFOS levels in the Coosa River basin have historically tested below the safe level, she said.  In a statement, ADEM said it has been working with the EPA and the Alabama Department of Public Health for more than a decade to monitor levels of PFOS and PFOA in surface water, drinking water and fish tissue in Alabama.

The nation’s main manufacturer of PFOS and PFOA, 3M, phased out production of the chemicals from 2000 to 2002. Company officials maintain they’ve seen no adverse health effects in connection with exposure to PFOS and PFOA. According to the EPA, eight major companies in 2006 agreed to phase out global production of these chemicals, “although there are a number of ongoing uses.”

Last week, attorneys representing the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority filed a pleading in federal court seeking relief for the water authority from manufacturers. “It is no defense that they quit making the products after they dumped their pollutants into the river. That is no defense at all,” Friedman said.  “That is just a calculated 3M PR move. They have put a toxic time bomb into the river,” he said.

Friedman said 3M and Daikin are “legally and morally responsible for creating this truly terrible situation for the people in Morgan and Lawrence counties. We are asking 3M and Daikin and the other polluters to clean up the mess that they have made in the Tennessee River.”

The EPA bases its health advisories on peer-reviewed studies of the adverse health effects of long-term exposure to these contaminants, including developmental dangers to fetuses and breastfed infants, cancer, liver damage, immune system changes and cholesterol effects.

In the meantime, residents served by the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority have little recourse. John Guarisco, an environmental toxicologist with the Alabama Department of Public Health, said last week that the state currently had no plans to distribute bottled water. “The only time we would ever be involved in giving out bottled water would be under an emergency order or a declared disaster or something along that line,” Guarisco says. Asked at what point the state would declare an emergency and provide residents with bottled water, Guarisco replied “That’s a question you’re going to have to ask ADEM.”

State-of-emergency declarations must be made by the governor.

Bottled water is just one option, said Jim McVay, director of health promotion and chronic disease at the Alabama Department of Public Health. The alternative? “They could actually go to another water system,” he said.

That isn’t on the radar for many of those affected. Since the EPA’s advisory, McVay said, county health departments, particularly in the Gadsden area, have been inundated with calls from residents. “They’re very concerned,” he said, “and they want to know who’s going to give them water.” McVay said that, for the indigent, health officials offer a few options for obtaining bottled water, most involving government assistance programs such as WIC and food stamps.