Advocacy group urges people in Lawrence, Morgan County not to use their tap water, says they’re studying dangerous contamination

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HARTSELLE, Ala. - The Warriors for Clean Water along with community activists and Dr. John Rose called a news conference Friday to urge residents of Lawrence and Morgan County not to use their tap water.

They say through continued study they have found dangerous health effects that are prevalent in both counties and linked to water contamination from perfluorinated compounds (PFC's) and heavy metals, both of which are discharged by manufacturers and found in the Tennessee River.

Previously, the West Morgan-East Lawrence (WMEL) Water Authority has warned customers that their tap water wasn't safe because of PFC contamination. They have since added carbon filtration aimed at removing the two PFC's they discovered, PFOA and PFOS. However, the activists say that manufacturers have replaced PFOA and PFOS with other comparable compounds that water systems don't yet know how to test for in samples.

Decatur Utilities, for its part, says, "The call by Dr. Rose for Decatur residents served by Decatur Utilities to use only bottled water was unwarranted and unsubstantiated."  They add, "Decatur Utilities once again wants to assure its water customers that all recent tests of its drinking water show no detectable levels of PFC’s and Decatur’s water supply is fully in compliance with all EPA and ADEM regulations." They do not address whether it is possible to test for all PFC's. The advocacy group asserts it is not.

They do say, "Decatur Utilities performs more than one million tests in-house and at third-party independent laboratories each year to monitor the level of contaminants in the drinking water provided. That report has consistently shown non-detectable levels of heavy metals such as lead, chromium and mercury."

Dr. Rose says he has found clusters of cancer and other health problems linked to water contamination in both Lawrence and Morgan counties. He says Courtland specifically has high concentrations of these health issues.

The primary health focus is on kidney cancer and kidney failure, which Dr. Rose says he and researchers have found disproportionately affect this area.

They said in the news conference they have identified heavily impacted zip codes, but could not provide them at the time. We intended to provide those to you once we obtained them, but once the group released them to us, it turned out to be a list of zip codes where people had volunteered to participate -- not necessarily the zip codes with the heaviest impact. Once provided that information, we have decided against releasing the list of zip codes.

The doctor emphasizes that he hopes to facilitate further study of the health impact on the region by organizing medical professionals. They hope to, in part, recreate a previous study done after a contamination in West Virginia. He says anyone who believes they may be impacted or is interested in assisting can send a message to Healthstudy2018@gmail.com.

The community activists have also started organizing bottled water drives and giveaways to help impacted residents. They say dropoff will be at 444 Tennessee Street in Courtland.

Lynn Battle, the Chief of the Office of External Affairs for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, did not address the concerns raised about heavy metals or PFC's outside of PFOA and PFOS. However, she did issue this statement, “The level of PFOA and PFOS reported to ADEM by the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority are below the health advisory levels issued by the EPA to be protective of human health.  Any local health data collected should be shared with ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry—a federal agency) and ADPH (Alabama Department of Public Health) for review."

The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority declined to provide someone to go on camera, but they do point to their carbon filtration system, which they note has been in place since October 2016. A spokesperson for the system says they are well below advisory levels for the two best-known PFC's, PFOA and PFOS, which had caused their previous warning.

Decatur Utilities also declined to respond on camera, but did provide the statement we referenced above, which says in part, "Decatur Utilities provides its customers with safe, clean drinking water that exceeds state and federal quality standards. Contrary to the claim made by Mr. Mixon, DU’s water treatment process is multi-staged and includes screening, chemical addition, settling, filtration, and disinfection."

Hartselle Utilities, which gets its water from Decatur Utilities, posted a statement online saying it takes the quality of drinking water very seriously. The company added, "We have and will continue to conduct all appropriate measures to ensure the delivery of safe drinking water to our customers."