3M nears settlement with north Alabama water system over chemical pollution

Source:, April 4, 2019
By: Dennis Pillion

The West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority and chemical giant 3M are finalizing a settlement in a lawsuit over who will pay for a new multi-million dollar filtration system to remove industrial contaminants from the drinking water of thousands of people in north Alabama.

The amount of the settlement has not been disclosed, but the water authority had previously said the new filter system could cost $30-50 million.

The water authority’s suit asked 3M to pay for a new water filtration system to remove industrial chemicals that 3M manufactured and used for decades at its facility on the Tennessee River in Decatur. The water authority provides service directly or through other utilities for about 20,000 metered customers in north Alabama from an intake on the Tennessee River downstream of the 3M facility.

3M spokesperson Fanna Haile-Selassie confirmed that the company was “working to finalize a resolution” to the litigation.

“We look forward to announcing the outcome of those negotiations in the near future,” Haile-Selassie said.

Attorneys for the water authority did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

PFOA and PFOS are not found in nature but were widely used to make non-stick, waterproof or stain resistant coatings on consumer products like non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing or Scotchgard stain repellent. By nature, the chemicals are very slow to break down in the environment. They can last for decades after use and build up over time in human and animal tissue.

Though 3M stopped producing those chemicals in the early 2000s, they are now so widespread that nearly every person on earth has some level of them in their blood.

However, in 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that those chemicals were associated with health problems, including cancer at concentrations as low as 70 parts per trillion.

After that health advisory, the WMEL general manager Don Sims issued a “do not drink” advisory until the water system could get concentrations of the chemicals below those health advisory thresholds. The water authority constructed a $4 million temporary activated carbon filter system to remove those chemicals from the water.

The water authority was preparing to vote on a rate increase to cover the costs of the new filter system, which may not be necessary with the settlement.

PFOA and PFOS are just two of a class of thousands of chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short. After PFAS and PFOA fell out of favor, many product manufacturers turned to similar substitute chemicals that may also have health concerns.

The EPA has said it is “moving forward” to establish hard limits on certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water, including PFOA and PFOS. As of now, the health advisory limit is only a recommendation, not a regulation.

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