water contamination, toxic exposure

3M Company Accused In Lawsuit Of Contaminating Drinking Water

Another federal lawsuit has been filed against 3M Company for its alleged contamination of the Tennessee River. The Plaintiffs say contamination has threatened the health of those living around the river. The suit, filed by Tennessee Riverkeeper, an environmental nonprofit, says 3M’s Decatur chemical plant is the waste’s main generator. The suit also names BFI Waste Systems, the City of Decatur, and the Municipal Utilities Board of Decatur as defendants.


3M has produced perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) since the 1960s and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) since 1999 as byproducts of the non-stick goods it manufactured. The company has stated that it voluntarily decided to stop using PFOA and PFOS in 2001. A press release from the Riverkeeper said: “On-site disposal practices have resulted in groundwater contamination and the contamination of the Wheeler Reservoir of the Tennessee River.”

By contaminating the Wheeler Reservoir and the Tennessee River, Riverkeeper authorities said that 3M and others had tainted residents’ drinking water. The complaint alleges:

At least 4 other public water supplies using water from the Tennessee River downstream from Defendant 3M’s Decatur facility have detected PFOA contamination in finished water samples, including the Muscle Shoals Water Treatment Plant (WTP), the Florence Municipal Water Supply, and the Sheffield WTP, all of which are approximately 45 miles downstream of 3M’s Decatur facility.

EPA Issues Advisory

In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an advisory that water systems should not contain more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOS and PFOA. The Alabama Department of Public Health subsequently released an advisory announcing that eight of Alabama’s water systems did not meet the EPA’s new regulation. A December 2015 test showed these chemicals registering at 100 ppt in West Morgan-East Lawrence (WMEL) water system, supplied by the Tennessee River.

Following the EPA’s advisory, WMEL general manager Don Sims warned people not to drink or cook with the water until workers reduced those chemical levels. Morgan County Emergency Management began supplying the community with bottled water while WMEL attempted to dilute the chemical levels by mixing water from Decatur Utilities. WMEL has managed to reduce PFOA and PFOS levels to meet the EPA’s advised standards.

Dilution is Not Enough

Mark E. Martin, one of the lawyers for the Riverkeeper, noted that while the water has been diluted, the chemical still poses a threat. He had this to say :

PFOS and PFOA accumulates in sediment and fish, and people are exposed to it by using the river when they swim, fish or ski. There are a lot of people who eat the fish even though (ADPH) advised not to eat more than one fish a month (from the Wheeler Reservoir). There are subsistence fishermen who catch the fish and eat them because they aren’t aware of the advisory, or don’t take it into account.

The Riverkeeper’s complaint states that there is not a known environmental breakdown mechanism for these chemicals. It’s alleged further:

The human diseases caused by exposure to PFOA, PFOS and related chemicals include cancer, immunotoxicity, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol.

The Tennessee Riverkeeper claimed that these toxic releases not only violate the EPA’s recent advisory but also fail to comply with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The complaint said:

The “non-stick” chemicals damage the environment since they do not break down properly. In essence, these ‘non-stick’ chemicals do not stick to anything in the environment either, meaning they do not bind to anything to break down into safer components. There is thus nearly no safe level of these chemicals in the environment.

Not the First Water Lawsuit Against 3M

In a separate lawsuit filed in October 2015, an Alabama drinking water company and its customers claimed 3M knew its Decatur plant was discharging dangerous chemicals into the Tennessee River, contaminating the company’s drinking water for at least 14 years. The suit also claimed 3M falsely assured the company that “documented levels of pollution posed no threat” to its customers.

The ongoing suit cites a 2010 study conducted by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The study analyzed blood samples from 121 people who drank WMEL’s water. An elevated level of PFOA and PFOS was found in their blood. While WMEL’s suit is seeking monetary damages from 3M and others, the Riverkeeper’s suit demands the company remediate the environmental damage it caused. David Whiteside, the Riverkeeper’s founder and director said their sole purpose “is to force the people who are responsible to clean up [the waste].”

Case Information

The Tennessee Riverkeeper is represented by William Matsikoudis and Derek Fanciullo of Matsikoudis & Fanciullo LLC and Mark E. Martin. This case is Tennessee Riverkeeper Inc. v. 3M Company et al. in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Northeastern Division.

Source: Montgomery Advertiser and Law360.com

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