Leading candidates for governor differ on whether state can do more to address Lawrence County drinking water problems

LAWRENCE COUNTY, Ala. -- There has not been much focus on environmental issues in the Alabama governor’s race and residents in Lawrence County have noticed.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory in 2016 on the potential health effects of high concentrations of PFC chemicals found in drinking water supplied by the West Morgan-East Lawrence water authority to residents in Lawrence County.

Now, two years later, the water authority and its customers are paying for a filtration system installed to filter out the chemicals, but there’s been no coordinated state response. Residents have expressed concern about the health effects potentially tied to drinking the water for years and whether state officials are paying attention to those concerns.

WHNT News 19 talked to the leading candidates for governor, including Republicans Gov. Kay Ivey and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, and Democrats former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.

Ivey told WHNT News 19, she wasn’t focused on the water quality issues in North Alabama as she’s dealt with other issues during the campaign.

“At this moment it’s going to have to be down the road consideration, but certainly drinking water is an essential source that we have to pay attention to, so I’ll be glad to help wherever I can on that issue,” Ivey said in an April interview.

Battle, Ivey’s GOP rival in the governor’s race, says the state’s role is clear, and new programs aren’t needed.

“I think the important thing to realize is the state already has a role in it, the state health department has a role in making sure we have clean water throughout the state,” Battle told WHNT News 19. “If we follow up and do what we’re supposed to do, we don’t need to enlarge government, we don’t need to add programs, we need to just do what our charge is – make sure we have safe drinking water in every section of the state.”

But Battle says the issue hasn’t really appeared on his campaign’s radar.

“We’ve been in Lawrence County, we’ve talked to people in Lawrence County, that’s not what they brought – is the drinking water,” he said.

Democrat Cobb said the state should be doing more, starting with funding for environmental enforcement.

“At this point, ADEM, Alabama Department of Environmental Management, has simply not been given the funding by the Republican leadership and legislature that they should have been given,” Cobb said. “They have basically zeroed out water quality enforcement.”

She also stressed she doesn’t think it’s a partisan issue.

“The people of Alabama understand safe drinking water is essential to life,” Cobb said.

Maddox said residents should expect a more active response from the State of Alabama.

“In Alabama, there’s never been a strategic focus on water quality, whether it’s storm water, whether it’s drinking water, whether it’s sanitary sewer, and that’s something as a mayor I have to deal with every single day,” Maddox said. “And that’s the type of approach that we’ll bring into office.

“Whether you’re in Lawrence County, Alabama or Mountain Brook you deserve quality water and that’s something that as governor we’ll work every single day to make happen.”

Courtland resident and community organizer Brenda Hampton is going to 250-500 doors every two weeks delivering bottled water. She gets donations and pays for it out her pocket.

“I’m giving out bottled water to the residents in this area. I take care of 250 homebound and sick and babies on feeding tubes with bottled water,” Hampton said.

She’s seen a number of residents with serious health problems and wonders if those problems, like high rates of kidney cancer, are tied to long exposure to heavy metals or chemical compounds in the drinking water.

She says the state can help.

“I would like them to come into this area and at least test the people to make sure their health situation, then I would like for them to do something as far as cleaning up this area with all this contamination,” Hampton said.

The West Morgan-East Lawrence water authority is still waiting on a lawsuit settlement to help pay for its activated carbon filtration system installed in 2016 to filter out PFC chemicals.  Customers have seen a recent surcharge on their bills to help pay for maintenance on the system.

When the EPA health advisory was first issued in May 2016, then-Gov. Robert Bentley criticized the EPA for lowering the recommended exposure levels. Bentley later said the state had qualified water monitors.

In January, following a press conference by clean water advocates over concerns about the relationship between health problems in the area and the drinking water, the Alabama Department of Public Health said it had seen no evidence of a public health issue related to the “water situation in North Alabama.”