Alabama State Health Director, Decatur Utilities push back against water quality concerns north Alabama

MORGAN COUNTY, Ala. - The advocacy group known as "Warriors for Clean Water" claims there is a direct connection between the drinking water drawn from the Tennessee River and multiple reports of serious health issues in Morgan and Lawrence County, specifically kidney problems, but utility and health officials reject those claims strongly.

The concern comes from tracking contamination in the Tennessee River and collecting reports of health problems from the area. Local utility companies have fired back claiming the water is safe.

We took these concerns straight to Dr. Scott Harris, who is the acting State Health Officer for the Alabama Department of Public Health. The ADPH isn't new to water concerns, especially after the Environmental Protection Agency adjusted its acceptable levels of two different chemicals in drinking water; the chemicals are part of a family called PFCs. The EPA guidance, adjusted in 2016, led utility companies along the Tennessee River to change their filtration systems to keep up the new requirements.

"We don't know any places that continue to have elevated of PFCs at this time," says Harris. "At this time, based on the information we have, we don't know of a public health problem that is related to those chemicals in the water."

However, state regulators did release a fish consumption advisory in July of 2017 that told residents in Morgan and Limestone County to only eat one fish per month from the Wheeler Reservoir due to PFCs. That's the general area where local utilities draw their water.

On Friday 'Warriors for Clean Water' announced their belief that there are other PFC chemicals lurking in the water that aren't currently being tested. The group also claims kidney and renal cancer clusters are now forming in Morgan and Lawrence Counties because of them, combined with the effects of heavy metals in the river.

Dr. Harris says they have no record of any increase. "We've actually investigated this for quite some time, and our cancer epidemiology staff investigates any reports of cancer clusters anywhere in the state. Regardless of what the cause is, there is no evidence of cancer clusters, period."

He says they've been on alert since the claims by 'Warriors for Clean Water' came out.

"We've looked at north Alabama more than once, and again, even in the past week since all of this has come up. In fact, the types of renal or kidney related cancers that have been mentioned in the news are not more common in folks living along the Tennessee River or using those waters there," says Harris. "In fact, the total level of cancer for men in Lawrence County is lower than the average, not higher. I'm not really sure what data they collected that led them to those conclusions."

Harris says, "There is certainly a tremendous amount of debate and very little science that says whether these chemicals even cause cancer."

After a serious contamination in West Virginia, a legal settlement forced DuPont to pay for a study into the health impacts of a specific PFC called PFOA.  The science panel found probable links between exposure to PFOA and testicular and kidney cancer, along with other health impacts including high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Advocates say they're finding high incidence rates of several of those health impacts.

Harris says the advocacy group hasn't provided them with any information but says they're listening. They are willing to investigate any concerns that may come up.

"We understand they're very concerned, and we take that concern seriously. And, really, our response has been to continue to monitor for evidence of any health problems," says Harris. "We have reviewed the scientific evidence over and over and continue to review information as it becomes available. At this time, based on the information we have, we don't know of a public health problem that is related to those chemicals in the water. We don't see evidence of higher levels of cancer in that part of the state from any cause, and so we're just continuing to monitor that situation and we certainly want to do out best to serve those folks who are looking to us for help."

We also reached out to Decatur Utilities, asking about the quality of their water, and what they test for. They responded to our questions with the following:

How confident are you in the safety of your water?

Decatur Utilities has absolute confidence that we are providing safe, clean drinking water to both its retail customers within the City of Decatur as well as wholesale customers.

This is evidenced by:

  1. More than 1.5 million tests performed each year to monitor levels of turbidity and contaminants with results that are either non-detectable or well below the Maximum Contamination Limit (MCL) allowed by our permits with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  2. Specifically, lead, chromium and mercury showed NON-DETECTABLE levels.
  3. Prior testing for PFOS, PFOA and four other PFCs showed NON-DETECTABLE levels.
  4. EPA and ADEM’s recognition of our plant as “optimized” for the past four years – meaning we go above and beyond the regulatory standards.

Can you talk us through your filtration process?

Water is taken from the Tennessee River at an intake upstream of industries located along the river. The treatment process takes an average of 24 hours and includes a variety of steps designed to screen solids, remove particulate matter, filter out impurities, disinfect and prevent corrosion in distribution lines.

Out of the PFCs that you test for, do you test for anything other than PFOS and PFOAs?

Four quarterly tests of PFOS and PFOA were performed in 2014 at the direction of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring (UCMR) Rule 3. In all tests there was no detectable, or zero, level of Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) present.

UCMR Rule 3 also included Perfluorononanoic Acid (PFNA), Perfluorohexanesulfonic Acid (PFHxS), Perfluoroheptanoic Acid (PFHpA) and Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS). ALL showed non-detectable levels.

No PFCs were included in the UCMR Rule 4 published by EPA in December of 2016.

 If not, does it concern you that there could be other PFCs in the water that you’re not testing.

Our intake is well east and upstream from plants located along the Tennessee River which produced PFOS and PFOA in the past.

Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rules (UCMR) are used by the EPA to study unregulated contaminates that are not currently part of the permit issued for water treatment plants. Data from tests performed by water utilities is used by EPA to determine if an advisory needs to be issued and/or if the unregulated contaminate should be added to the permit.

We have full confidence in the expertise at EPA and ADEM. DU will be notified if and when any additional PFCs are included in a future Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) and testing required.