A 3M manufacturing facility in Decatur, Alabama, violated federal environmental law by allowing the release of certain chemicals into the Tennessee River, raising concerns in a region already deeply affected by past 3M chemical releases.

Making matters worse, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) has known about these chemical releases since 2014 but has never notified the public of them, even though they may pose a serious threat to the environment and public health.

Documents obtained by Huntsville, Alabama’s WHNT 19 show that 3M admitted in an April letter to ADEM that it unlawfully discharged the chemical FBSA and possibly another chemical, FBSEE, into the Tennessee River, which serves as a water source for several north Alabama communities.

The chemicals are replacement versions of PFOA and PFOS, two highly toxic chemicals in the perfluorooctanoic acid family of chemicals that are used as surfactants that make a spectrum of consumer products non-stick, waterproof, and stain resistant.

While most manufacturers worldwide, including 3M, have phased out the use of PFOA and PFOS, the chemicals linger in the environment, posing the risk of cancer and other serious illnesses to humans and wildlife. In May 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  issued a health advisory warning the public about the presence of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctyl sulfonate (PFOS) in 59 water systems nationwide, including eight in Alabama.

According to WHNT, the EPA is still working to determine what risks the chemicals FBSA and FBSEE may pose to the environment and human health.

3M told ADEM and the EPA that it discovered the chemical release in an internal investigation. The company said it has suspended use of the chemicals to avoid further violations of the Toxic Substance Control Act and is taking corrective actions to prevent future releases.

3M does not say how much of the chemical was released or when it occurred, but the company has underreported discharges of chemicals into the Tennessee River in the past.

Sadly, it’s often much cheaper for giant corporations that manufacture and use chemicals to release potentially toxic substances into the environment and pay the penalties than it is to properly dispose of the chemicals and industrial waste. If the government won’t take meaningful action to stop the pollution, concerned citizens and organizations can hold the offenders accountable in court.

That’s what Tennessee Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group, is doing with 3M.

Tennessee Riverkeeper founder David Whiteside told WHNT that “this breakthrough gives Tennessee Riverkeeper new evidence not to trust 3M and their proper disposal of chemicals.” His non-profit environmental organization filed a lawsuit against 3M in 2016 over water contamination concerns.

“Tennessee Riverkeeper is rightfully concerned that 3M has not been following the Toxic Substance Act,” Mr. Whiteside told WHNT. “We want to know what else they may be dumping into our river. This is horrifying.”

“The politicians are sitting on their hands not doing anything about it,” Mr. Whiteside added. “Do a better job of protecting our waterways and enforcing these commonsense laws.”

In April, 3M reached a $35 million settlement with the West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority over chemical pollution in the Tennessee River. The settlement money will be used to build a water filtration system that is able to remove per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from the water.

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