The lawsuit in a federal court against 3M and others over chemical pollution of the Tennessee River near Decatur, Alabama, will proceed. U.S. District Judge Abdul K. Kallon denied three motions to dismiss filed by Defendants in the case. As we have previously reported, the lawsuit, filed by environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper, alleges that synthetic chemicals manufactured by 3M at its plant in Decatur have been entering the Tennessee River, including Wheeler Reservoir, a major source of drinking water for decades, and that these chemicals pose a threat to human health and the environment.
The lawsuit, filed under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), seeks to force 3M, BFI Waste Systems of Alabama, the City of Decatur, Morgan County and other entities to clean up landfills and wastewater treatment plants the Plaintiffs say are still releasing those chemicals into the Tennessee River and local groundwater.
In the motions to dismiss, the Defendants argued that they were already acting with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to clean up some of the contaminated sites along the Tennessee River and that the chemicals in question – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctyl sulfonate (PFOS) – did not fit the definition of hazardous materials in the RCRA. But Judge Kallon ruled the case could continue, noting “RCRA itself does not include a list of hazardous wastes nor a specific method for determining whether a waste is hazardous,” and that whether PFOA and PFOS were hazardous would be the “crux of this dispute.” David Whiteside, Tennessee Riverkeeper’s founder and executive director, said in a news release:
After nearly five decades of 3M’s pollution of the Tennessee River, where no one has held the defendants accountable, Riverkeeper needed to act to protect this precious resource and all the wildlife and restore justice to the hundreds of thousands of people who rely upon her waters everyday. We don’t mind 3M making profitable products – but, we cannot tolerate the defendants putting profit ahead of the health of people, the environment, and our water.
The chemicals do not occur naturally, but according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports, some levels of PFOA and PFOS can be found in the bloodstream of nearly every person on Earth because they are highly resistant to breaking down in the environment and build up in animal tissue over time. Last year the EPA revised its guidelines regarding these chemicals, warning new research had shown the chemicals could be harmful to humans in lower concentrations than the Agency previously thought.
According to the EPA advisory, potential health effects of long-term exposure to these PFCs could include “developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).”
Both chemicals were used primarily in manufacturing to create stain-resistant or non-stick coatings on cookware, carpets, furniture fabric and other consumer products. The chemicals were used in commercial products Teflon and Scotchgard, as well as common firefighting foam, until the health risks became more apparent. The EPA Health Advisory recommended drinking water contain no more than 0.07 parts per billion combined of PFOA and PFOS to avoid long-term health impacts from drinking the water over a number of years. That announcement caused eight Alabama water systems to change their water sources to reduce concentrations of PFCs below the advisory threshold. One water provider, the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority, issued a “do not drink” recommendation to its customers until it could bring in outside water to dilute its supply, and then install a permanent filter.
In its lawsuit, Tennessee Riverkeeper claims groundwater testing from the 3M facility in Decatur showed “[c]oncentrations of PFOA as high as 4,980 [parts per billion] and PFOS as high as 3,890 ppb,” thousands of times higher than the EPA advisory threshold.
Other litigation involving these chemicals continues in north Alabama, and around the country. The West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority has a separate lawsuit against 3M and other manufacturing operations along the Tennessee River, seeking to force them to pay for additional filtration equipment to remove PFCs from the water it takes from the river. Daikin America, one of the Defendants in that suit, agreed last year to settle the claims against it for $5 million.
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