DECATUR, Ala. - After years of chemical contamination concerns in North Alabama, 3M appears to be changing its approach on the cleanup of its chemicals.
PFAS chemicals — produced at 3M’s Decatur plant for decades — have been found at high levels in the Tennessee River and in the ground in Morgan and Lawrence counties.
The company is currently dealing with a slew of legal issues related to PFAS chemical contamination.
One of those legal battles in Decatur is led by David Whiteside. Whiteside is the founder of environmental watchdog group Tennessee RiverKeeper.
"3M has had a long history of trying to sweep their PFAS liability under the rug and trying to hide this contamination,” Whiteside said.
His nonprofit is suing 3M over chemicals it discharged in the Tennessee River, a major source for drinking water in North Alabama.
PFAS chemicals help create non-stick, non-absorbent surfaces. They do not break down in the environment. 3M used the chemicals to make products like Scotchgard.
"They are slowly starting to come around and realize the seriousness of their contamination and the liability associated with it,” Whiteside said.
After drawing criticism from some elected officials around the U.S., environmental groups and members of the public that it was concealing the chemicals’ potential health risks, 3M said recently it is taking a different approach on the matter — being more forthcoming about the chemicals.
“We are part of the solution to ensuring communities have confidence in their water. This includes addressing contamination of sites where we were produced or disposed of PFAS,” 3M CEO Mike Roman said during a company earnings call in January.
In that same January call Roman also announced the company is facing a new potential problem — a federal grand jury.
"In connection with our Decatur disclosures 3M received a grand jury subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Alabama in late December 2019,” Roman said.
The grand jury subpoena comes eight months after 3M self-reported apparent violations of its permit and six months after WHNT News 19 reported 3M discharged a chemical, for a decade, that was not allowed to be released into the Tennessee River.
The company has created a page on its website related to PFAS. On the site, 3M has information about the history, health science, chemical testing, regulations and litigation involving the chemicals.
The Environmental Protection Agency says there is evidence that exposure to PFAS chemicals can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. The EPA says studies have linked PFAS chemicals -- PFOA and PFOS -- to health problems like some cancers, thyroid issues, and low birth weight.
3M’s website includes this statement about the chemicals.
"The weight of scientific evidence over decades of research does not show that PFOA or PFOS causes harm in people at current or past levels."
3M also lists some health information on its page. Specifically, studies about PFAS chemicals in human blood.
According to the company 71 workers at its Decatur plant were tested for PFOA and PFOS chemicals in their blood over a period of 16 years. 3M said it stopped manufacturing PFOA and PFOS chemicals in the early 2000s. The levels of PFOA and PFOS chemicals in workers' blood appears to decline in the 16 year time period, according to the records on the website.
It’s not clear why 71 Decatur plant workers were listed on the website at a plant that employs hundreds. The website does not provide specific information on the health of those Decatur workers.
On Thursday evening 3M shared a poster from a presentation the company gave at a Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry conference in 2019.
The conclusion of the presentation reads:
"Post phase-out serum PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS concentrations declined in the 3M Decatur plant employee and retiree population. The results from this study are consistent with serum elimination half-lives that have been reported at this Decatur plant which may have been influenced by some ambient exposures within these confines.”
There are still no enforceable federal standards for PFAS chemicals, though the EPA has announced its intent to create them.
3M notes that the EPA can and should act swiftly on creating the regulations, adding that it supports calls for a “clearly-defined timeline” in developing drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS chemicals.
3M is stressing it’s not the problem — it’s part of the solution. But PFAS issues in North Alabama go beyond water.
The city of Decatur and 3M have identified a number of sites contaminated by 3M chemicals in the ground, including Brookhaven Middle School, which closed in 2018.
3M says it is working with the city to determine the scale of the contamination and cleanup, including groundwater monitoring.
Groups like Tennessee RiverKeeper are hopeful the recent words of 3M’s CEO produce action. While the company's new tone on PFAS is interesting to Whiteside, he’s skeptical based on how the company's addressed the group's lawsuit.
"3M`s tactic is delay, delay, delay. We want this process sped up. I`ve been also demanding that 3M take this process more seriously. And, unfortunately, they just keep dragging their feet,” Whiteside said.
In 2019, 3M paid out $35 million in a lawsuit settlement to the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority. The utility is using the funds to install an advanced water filtration system. CEO Roman announced in January the company had set aside $214 million for litigation costs in the fourth quarter.
Two North Alabama lawsuits against 3M — including Tennessee RiverKeeper’s have a mediation deadline that was recently extended to April 1.
It’s not clear, how, or if those cases will be resolved.
3M released this statement on its new approach to PFAS on Thursday evening.
"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. We have spent decades studying certain PFAS, and we have shared our research with regulators, the public and the rest of industry to broaden the global knowledge on PFAS.
"Last September, we went one step further and announced a series of company initiatives and actions related to PFAS, demonstrating 3M’s commitment to environmental stewardship. We intend to share more about progress towards these initiatives before the end of the first quarter. We will continue to engage with members of our communities, elected officials and regulators to share information we learn."