LAWRENCE COUNTY, Ala -- The West Morgan-East Lawrence water authority is asking Gov. Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall to join in its lawsuit against 3M, seeking millions of dollars for drinking water cleanup.
WHNT News 19’s investigation into the issue has found ailing residents in Lawrence County are worried state officials are ignoring their plight.
The letter sent Friday by the authority argues that 3M, which has a plant in Decatur, has polluted the Tennessee River with the chemicals PFOA and PFOS which were used in Scotchgard and other products. The chemicals have been linked by researchers to a number of health effects.
The authority points out that Minnesota sued 3M and won an $850 million settlement, but Alabama hasn’t taken similar action.
WMEL authority general manager Don Sims wrote in the letter:
"If elected officials in 3M's home state of Minnesota were willing to stand up against their state's largest company, isn't it time that Alabama's elected officials take action to clean up the state's largest river and to protect the Alabamians who rely on the river for their drinking water supply?"
A spokesman for Attorney General Steve Marshall told WHNT News 19 Tuesday evening the attorney's office is reviewing the letter.
"The Attorney General has received the letter from WMEL General Manager Don Sims and is reviewing it," spokesman Mike Lewis said in an email. " We are preparing a response to the WMEL and will provide you a copy of that letter after it is transmitted to the water authority this week."
The EPA issued a health advisory for the WMEL customers in May 2016, after finding high concentrations of PFOA and PFOS in the authority’s drinking water.
The authority warned customers not to drink its water – urging them to use bottled water – and then borrowed $4 million to pay for a carbon filtration system to filter out the chemicals.
The WMEL water authority installed a carbon filtration system in late September 2016. The carbon filtration system is expected to filter out the dangerous PFOA and PFOS chemicals. The WMEL Water Authority says the water currently meets all state and federal regulatory requirements.
The current system is not a permanent fix, WMEL officials say. They say the water treatment plant needs a reverse osmosis system estimated to cost $25 million dollars. The WMEL manager has previously told WHNT News 19 the reverse osmosis is a more advanced system to capture other industrial pollutants in water.
The letter also notes that after the health advisory in 2016 WMEL representatives began meeting with then Attorney General Luther Strange and the AG’s office staff.
“Attorney General Strange appointed a group of water treatment experts to verify the problems facing WMEL and substantiate the costs that would have to be incurred in order to guarantee the safety of the drinking water,” Sims wrote in the letter. “We simply requested that the Alabama Attorney General intervene in our case on behalf of Alabamians in the same way that the Attorney General of Minnesota, 3M’s home state, intervened on behalf of his citizens.”
But, the letter contends, after Strange’s appointment to the U.S. Senate replacing Jeff Sessions, “the process stalled completely.”
Previously Gov. Ivey responded to WHNT News 19’s request for comment on the water problems with the following statement:
"Governor Ivey receives updates from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and is aware of the situation in the West “Morgan/East Lawrence area," a spokesman for the governor said. "She is encouraged by the fact that the level of contaminants remains below EPA Health Advisory and appreciates the hard work of officials in the area and ADEM, regarding this situation."
Marshall’s office has also said that ADEM is chiefly responsible for environmental management in Alabama. WHNT News 19 asked if it would consider suing on behalf of Alabama residents.
"The Attorney General’s Office does not comment on potential litigation," a spokesman for the AG's office said. "However, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has been keeping our office apprised of this issue and is working diligently with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."
A spokesman for the governor told us on Wednesday their office still hasn't received a letter sent by the WMEL Water Authority.
“I understand the concerns of the residents in the Morgan/Lawrence County area. My office is aware of the ongoing situation there and will continue to work with ADEM and local officials on those issues," said Gov. Ivey. "We will also be working with the Attorney General’s Office to research the request of the West Morgan/East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority. I support the Attorney General as he makes the proper determination on any possible litigation.”
Updated at 6:28 p.m. to include Attorney General's office comment.
Updated Oct. 17 to include Governor Ivey's response.