Study reveals previously unknown PFC compounds in Wheeler Lake

The Tennessee River (Photo: Al Whitaker, WHNT News 19)

MORGAN COUNTY, Ala. – A new scientific report on pollution in the Tennessee River at Decatur reveals just how saturated the Wheeler Basin is with certain PFC compounds. Those compounds, including PFOS, were used in the manufacture of various products such as Teflon and Scotchgard, and even the foam used to fight certain types of fires. But the report also reveals the presence of previously unknown chemicals, substances our investigative team suspected were there, but until now, we had no proof of their existence.

You’re looking at a toilet. Most of us know it as the Tennessee River, and some refer to this part of the river as Wheeler Lake, or Wheeler Basin. But in reality, for at least some of the 27 different industries who have permits to flush away the wastes of their various industrial processes here, it’s little more than a big toilet.

A report, published recently in Environmental Science and Technology, confirms not just the presence of various PFC compounds like PFOA and PFOS. It reveals the quantity of the compounds in the river water and the sediment on the river bottom.  But more than that, it reveals the presence of previously unknown PFC compounds.

These are newer compounds believed to have been created to replace the older and more controversial compounds PFOA and PFOS. And little to nothing is known about what effect these newer compounds may have on the environment or those who are exposed to them.

“It took ’em 30 years, 3 decades, to find out about PFOS and PFOA. Now we’ve got all these new ones plus these unidentified ones in the water, and there are no regulations on them,” says Ron Mixon. He commissioned the original study that eventually led to the report being published nationally. Samples were taken from 10 sites along Wheeler Lake in October, 2015, by Auburn University researchers.

3M, in Decatur, produced the PFOS compounds for decades. In May of 2000, it was announced 3M would phase out the compounds because, according to a news release from the Environmental Protection Agency,  “These chemicals are very persistent in the environment, have a strong tendency to accumulate in human and animal tissues and could potentially pose a risk to human health and the environment.”

The release also says the phaseout, “…Will ensure that future exposure to these chemicals will be eliminated, and public health and the environment will be protected.”

That would be nice if it were true.

In reality, PFOS is still ever present in the environment. What’s more, it is still being dumped into Wheeler Lake on a daily basis, the result of tons of waste from 3M over the years that was deposited in several nearby landfills. As rainwater seeps through the rotting garbage, and toxic wastes, it’s collected and pumped to the Dry Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant, and dumped directly into the area’s largest toilet, Wheeler Lake.

Decatur Utilities operates the waste water treatment plant. Their permit, from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), allows them to dump an unlimited quantity of the compounds into the river. They are required to take samples of the treated wastes, 4 times a year, and report the levels of PFC compounds to ADEM.

16 years, almost to the day, after the EPA and 3M jointly announced the phaseout of PFOA and PFOS, the EPA issued new guidelines for the level of the compounds considered safe in finished drinking water. 70 parts per trillion is the new standard. Pregnant women and nursing mothers are still encouraged to use bottled water if the compounds are present in their tap water.

3M, meanwhile, as reported in a story by our news partners, AL.com, claim the compounds are not believed to be harmful at levels typically found in the environment or in human blood.

As for the new compounds discovered in the river, researchers say they asked local industries for more data about them but were told the information was proprietary and would not be publicly released.

NOTE: We asked the American Chemical Society for permission to post the research report here, but that was denied as per their policy. However, we can provide a link to the report’s abstract. CLICK HERE.