Ripples from a drop of water.

Fighting ‘forever’

Health concerns over PFAS chemicals put in the spotlight

by Sydney Cromwell

A group of chemicals called PFAS have been dumped from the Decatur 3M plant into the Tennessee River for decades. 

Thirteen miles south, Brenda Hampton sees the effects of these “forever chemicals” come into her neighbors’ homes through the drinking water: cancer, renal failure, birth defects and developmental delays.

“If these plant managers could walk in my shoes for just a day, … they would be devastated about what they have done,” Hampton said.

Tennessee Riverkeeper David Whiteside said the water near the 3M plant shows scarily high levels of PFAS contamination.

“I’m pretty sure that’s one of the most contaminated sites in the country,” he said.

Now that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is releasing new regulations around PFAS pollution, forever chemicals are coming under new scrutiny.

The lower half of the photo is the water of the river. On the far side of the water is a gravel bank, and beyond it there are storefronts, a large office building and parking lot, a playground and several trees.
A view of Decatur, Alabama, from the Tennessee River. Public domain photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

‘NEXT-LEVEL DANGEROUS’

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used to make products resistant to heat, water, oil, grease or stains.

They have been produced in various forms since the 1940s, with different names based on their chemical structures: PFOA, PFOS, GenX and PFBS. While they’re useful to modern life, studies have linked them to various forms of cancer and birth defects, as well as damage to the liver, kidney, thyroid, cardiovascular system and immune system.

PFAS get the nickname “forever chemicals” because they take so long to break down in the environment — in some cases more than a thousand years.

It takes only a miniscule amount of exposure to these chemicals to potentially damage your health. The EPA currently recommends limiting lifetime exposure to 2,000 parts per trillion of PFBs and just 10 ppt of GenX chemicals. PFOA and PFOS are considered even more unsafe: the acceptable level of exposure is less than 1 part per trillion.

At sites near the 3M plant in Decatur, Whiteside said he has tested water that contains up to 50,000 parts per trillion of PFOA and PFOS. He hasn’t been allowed to test on the plant site itself.

In 2019, heavy PFAS contamination was found at Decatur’s Brookhaven Middle School and the Aquadome, a recreation center and indoor pool that was built on top of a 3M landfill.

“This chemical is so next-level dangerous,” he said.

Most people have some level of PFAS already in their bloodstreams.

PFAS exposure doesn’t just happen near industrial plants. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group has mapped more than 70 drinking-water and military sites with unsafe PFAS levels around Alabama, around all of the major cities and dotted among rural towns.

The highest concentrations of PFAS were found at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base (122,000 ppt) and at the Birmingham International Airport (45,000 ppt). However, for most Alabamians, drinking water and household supplies are going to be the most likely sources of PFAS encounters.

A drop of water splashes into a clear glass of water.

When the EWG tested residential water supplies, sites downstream of the 3M plant had high levels of contamination, of course. The greatest amount of PFAS, however, were actually found at the Centre (Cherokee County) water supply in 2020, with 550 parts per trillion. 

Other test sites with above 100 parts per trillion of PFAS were located near Fort Payne, Florence, Gadsden, Jordan Lake (Montgomery County), Rainbow City, Satsuma, Vinemont and the Coosa River in St. Clair County.

According to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s 2020 annual report on public drinking-water systems, Centre has since constructed a system to treat and remove PFAS. The report only noted 57 water systems where PFAS was detected in 2020, and seven of them above 70 parts per trillion, less than the EWG findings.

Read more about those water systems’ responses to limit PFAS exposure in ADEM’s drinking-water systems report.

Earlier this year, the various waterkeeper organizations in Alabama collected water samples to test for PFAS. This was part of a national Waterkeeper Alliance effort “so we can get a better understanding of the levels in every river, lake and stream across the country,” Cahaba Riverkeeper David Butler said.

Butler said the Waterkeeper Alliance plans to release the nationwide results in a report in October. If the PFAS levels from Alabama’s initial samples come back high, Butler said, the local waterkeepers will likely do more testing for the chemicals in the future.

MAKING THE COMMUNITY AWARE

While PFAS isn’t visible to the naked eye, Hampton, a retired great-grandmother, said there are obvious signs that all is not well with the West Morgan – East Lawrence (WMEL) Water Authority’s drinking-water supply.

“Our water is tea-colored and smells like rotten eggs” in the mornings, she said.

A water sampling project in 2015 gave Hampton more specifics on what, exactly, was in her water. Since then, she has drawn the connection between her community’s water source and its health.

An overhead view of the Tennessee River, surrounded by patches of forested and cleared agricultural land.
The Tennessee River south of Huntsville. Photo courtesy of formulanone, Wikimedia Commons.

“I was devastated, I was shocked because we had a lot of people with illnesses here,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit those who were already sick especially hard. She estimated at one point they were seeing seven or eight deaths a week.

“After COVID hit, it wiped people out because we were already at risk due to the contamination,” she said.

Because the water isn’t safe to drink, Hampton said she has been giving out bottled water for the past seven years. She also raises money to serve other needs in her rural community: food, hygiene supplies, wheelchairs and other medical needs.

“If they could see the babies on the feeding tubes where I go into the homes. … It’s horrendous,” Hampton said.

She also says her activism helped lead to the installation of a reverse osmosis system, which can help remove PFAS, in a WMEL filtration facility. Hampton continues to try to get Gov. Kay Ivey to put more restrictions on 3M and other plants dumping waste into the Tennessee River.

She runs the “Concerned Citizens of WMEL Water Service” group on Facebook, where she posts regularly about local and global PFAS contamination. Between these efforts and frequent local news coverage, she said her community is pretty well aware of the health hazards.

“They’re as aware as they can be,” Whiteside agreed.

That doesn’t mean everyone agrees with what Hampton is doing. She said she has received anonymous threats and gotten into arguments with neighbors and even her own family over her activism. 

The 3M plant provides a lot of jobs in east Lawrence County, and Hampton said many people worry about the impact of lawsuits and tighter restrictions on their job security.

“They all have been upset with me about 3M,” she said.

In September, Hampton is traveling to Washington, D.C., to join a national protest at EPA headquarters over pollution-related illnesses.

“I would like to see PFAS totally eliminated,” she said.

COMPANY CLEANUP

In July 2020, 3M and ADEM agreed to an interim consent order that outlined how the company would manage cleanup of PFAS-polluted sites.

According to EPA Region 4 spokesperson Melba Table, this consent order requires 3M to assess PFAS levels at any sites where the company dumped waste and create a monitoring and testing system to track the pollution. 3M also has to install specialized equipment to control PFAS pollution in the air and water. The company is responsible for cleaning up or containing heavily polluted areas as well.

Grant Thompson, a spokesperson for 3M, said the company has installed two water-treatment systems and granular activated carbon systems to remove PFAS chemicals from water leaving the Decatur plant.

The company is also working on a series of projects “designed to minimize discharge of PFAS” from the plant’s operations, Thompson said. ADEM approved 3M’s wastewater minimization plan in late 2021, and the company reports its progress to ADEM semi-annually.

“As scientific knowledge of PFAS has advanced, so has 3M’s approach to managing and disposing of these substances,” Thompson said in an emailed statement.

3M posts updates about PFAS cleanup at its various facilities on a dedicated website.

There have been several lawsuits related to the Decatur 3M plant’s pollution, and their recent settlements will impact the cleanup efforts going forward.

Last October, two different lawsuits were settled with payouts that could reach a total of $98 million. 3M agreed to pay for additional cleanup work and for Tennessee Riverkeeper to increase its monitoring of PFAS contamination.

“If they could see the babies on the feeding tubes where I go into the homes, … it’s horrendous.”

Brenda Hampton, Lawrence County resident

The city of Decatur, Morgan County and Decatur Utilities will be reimbursed for the money they have already spent in cleaning up PFAS dump sites. 3M will also pay to cap contamination sites at the Morgan County Landfill.

As part of the settlement, 3M will pay for a new city recreation center and indoor pool for Decatur, to replace the Aquadome.

A class-action suit by several local drinking-water systems, including the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority, also finalized a $12 million settlement this spring. About half of that money was put into a fund to compensate homeowners who paid for contaminated water. The maximum payment per household is $745.

Importantly, none of the individual payouts are related to personal injury or illness caused by the contamination, since that is difficult to prove.

“It’s not enough to compensate for the illnesses they’ve suffered,” Hampton said. 

Another class-action suit that began in 2002 was settled earlier this year. The lawsuit included property owners across six counties. In the final settlement, 3M agreed to pay for ongoing testing and cleanup of PFAS contamination and establish a $5 million fund for those who have had contaminated “sludge” applied to their properties as fertilizer.

In total, 3M will pay for about $300 million in cleanup costs, although about $150 million of that accounts for projects that have already been completed.

Residents of the town of Guin filed a similar class-action suit this spring, claiming PFAS contamination from the 3M plant in their town. That lawsuit is ongoing.

SPOTLIGHT ON FOREVER CHEMICALS

The EPA has made several moves this summer to treat PFAS chemicals as greater environmental and health hazards.

In June, the agency released four health advisories for drinking water, reducing the amount of exposure that is considered safe for PFOS, PFOA, GenX and PFBS. In particular, the EPA now says that even exposure to “near zero” amounts of PFOS and PFOA can be harmful.

“The government thinks these chemicals are far more dangerous than they previously acknowledged, and they’re going to be taking it more seriously,” Whiteside said.

These lifetime advisories are meant to protect those most sensitive to these chemicals — immunocompromised people, young children and people who are pregnant or nursing — and also take into account that exposure to PFAS can happen through many different products, not just drinking water.

As of this year, six types of PFAS chemicals are now part of the EPA’s risk-assessment process for considering site cleanup and treatment as part of the Superfund program.

Additionally, the EPA proposed in August that PFOS and PFOA be designated as hazardous substances under Superfund. This higher classification would require companies and military sites to report when they release unsafe levels of these two chemicals. 

It would also mean that PFOS and PFOA contamination could be cleaned up through Superfund. On its website, the EPA says it plans to collect public comments on whether to do the same for other chemicals in the PFAS family.

“Once finalized, this will allow EPA to hold polluters accountable and recover cleanup costs,” EPA Region 4 spokesperson Melba Table said via email. “… Where EPA finds that there may be an imminent and substantial danger to public health or  welfare related to PFAS and any other pollutants and contaminants, the Agency will consider using its CERCLA authority to respond.”

CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, is the official name for the law establishing the federal Superfund program.

Read more from Southern Science about Alabama’s Superfund sites.

Table said that a proposed National Drinking Water Regulation for PFOS and PFOA will be published by the end of this year. That regulation will set enforceable standards for drinking water and a date for meeting those standards.

Through 2024, the EPA is planning to keep PFAS chemicals a focus, including more research on their health and environmental impacts, more monitoring and more regulations on PFAS discharge into air, soil and water.

“Based on these advisories, affected water systems will take action to reduce the level of PFAS in the drinking water and provide information to their users, especially for those who may have conditions that make them more sensitive to PFAS exposure,” ADEM Director Lance LeFleur said in a statement following the release of the drinking-water advisories in June. “ADEM, along with the Alabama Department of Public Health, has been coordinating with water systems in Alabama that had measurable levels of PFAS to provide any assistance they may need.”

“The government thinks these chemicals are far more dangerous than they’ve previously acknowledged.”

David Whiteside, Tennessee Riverkeeper

Will these changes mean the Decatur 3M plant is added to the Superfund National Priorities List? Likely not, since the site cleanup is already being managed by the ADEM consent order. WHNT News has also reported that the EPA “released the property from the list of possible Superfund sites in 1995,” years before 3M stopped making PFOS and PFOA.

“[It] most likely should be a Superfund site,” Whiteside said.

However, the new regulations will impact the standards that 3M, and other companies who produced PFAS, have to meet in the future.

“It’s certainly going to make things more difficult for 3M,” Whiteside said.

Main article image courtesy of IndrajitDas, Wikimedia Commons.

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