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US Sen. Doug Jones says feds, state should take action on Lawrence County water problems

LAWRENCE COUNTY, Ala. - A WHNT News 19 Taking Action investigation into the drinking water in Lawrence County is catching the attention of federal officials.

State officials say the water's safe to drink but residents remain wary. Alabama Senator Doug Jones is now weighing in and says he hears the people of Lawrence County.

"Why your reporting is so important is to bring this attention and to keep this on the radar for state officials," said Jones. "Frankly, I'm concerned that our state officials have not taken this seriously enough."

WHNT News 19 began its recent reporting on the issue last month, a few days later, Jones invited the environmental protection agency to North Alabama during a Senate hearing.

"I'd like for them to come down. I think they need to hear the citizens," said Jones. "I think they need to see what people are talking about and get those anecdotal stories about what happened and why. I'd like to see them on the ground."

Manufacturing chemicals were found in the water supply at unhealthy levels in May 2016. The West Morgan/East Lawrence Water Authority (WMEL) began using a more advanced filtration system in September 2016.

The carbon system is supposed to filter out the chemicals PFOA and PFOS. The state of Alabama says the water is safe to drink. But residents aren't convinced it's able to filter out all of the contaminants from the Tennessee River.

That's in part because water authority officials say they need a $25 million reverse osmosis system to permanently fix the issue.

Annie Hughes says she's confident her bladder cancer is a result of years of drinking toxic water. "I cook with bottled water," said Hughes. "I make coffee with bottled water."

Darrius Bell says it's time the water issues are a top priority for elected officials.  "The safety of the citizens is number one," said Bell. "We need some safety. We need some safeguards dealing with this water."

The EPA says it is currently working on a plan to address PFC water contamination across the country.

Senator Jones says he wants to make sure EPA policies do not shield companies accused of polluting the water.

"Given the experience with the EPA under Scott Pruitt and I have to be a little concerned that they are more beholden to these big corporations than they are to the people," said Jones. "But I wanted to raise it because I want to make sure they know that we have people there that it affects their daily lives. I do wish Alabama would take a little bit more of an aggressive approach. There shouldn't be any pushback."

Jones says it's not solely on the EPA. He believes the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) should be more involved in solving the problem. "I'd like to see ADEM... I'd like to the State of Alabama joining forces and groundwork first to try and get this issue out in front and help EPA build a platform needed to try and address it."

Meanwhile, here on the ground in Lawrence County, they're still waiting for state officials to step up to the plate.

"It'd be wonderful to have some representative come and meet and talk with us and take the time," said Bell. "Take a few days. Don't just come through like you're going on a site seeing the tour and you don't really get to experience anything."

Their voices have reached Washington, but so far, they haven't reached Montgomery.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management tells WHNT News 19 the drinking water in Lawrence County is safe and meets all state and federal regulatory requirements. The agency has not responded to our requests for an interview.