Closings & Delays across the Tennessee Valley

Alabama AG’s office pledges to meet with West Morgan-East Lawrence water authority on drinking water lawsuit

LAWRENCE COUNTY, Ala. -- Days after it was asked to join a drinking water lawsuit brought by a local water authority against 3M, the Alabama Attorney General’s office has responded, saying it is open to meeting, but offered no commitments.

In a letter, Attorney General Steve Marshall told the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority that Minnesota’s successful $850 million lawsuit against 3M over drinking water contamination followed different laws than exist in Alabama.

WHNT News 19’s investigation into the issue has found ailing residents in Lawrence County are worried state officials are ignoring their plight.

Marshall also writes that he’s glad to meet with the water authority to discuss the issue, but he says that from the time he took office in February 2017 until now, “I am not aware of any effort by the West Morgan - East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority or any other plaintiff to contact or meet with me about litigation regarding PFOA and PFOS contamination of the Tennessee River.”

The AG’s letter follows the water authority’s request to Marshall and Gov. Kay Ivey last week, asking for help in the litigation.

Ivey responded Wednesday.

“I understand the concerns of the residents in the Morgan/Lawrence County area,” Ivey wrote. “My office is aware of the ongoing situation there and will continue to work with ADEM and local officials on those issues. 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.”

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 that were used in Scotchgard and other products. Researchers have linked the chemicals 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.

In his response, Marshall notes that Minnesota’s legal efforts took a different approach than may be available under Alabama law.

Marshall said his office is diligently studying the issue, but there are challenges.

“I will note that the State of Minnesota, which your letter references, was able to proceed in litigation under specific theories of liability found in Minnesota state law,” Marshall wrote. “As you may know, Alabama law does not contain comparable provisions; therefore, our evaluation of this matter is complex.”

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 water authority says it needs a reverse osmosis system which was estimated to cost about $25 million to install, but WMEL officials now say that number will be much higher.

Marshall’s letter Thursday, contending the water authority had not contacted him, follows up on a point raised by the authority in its letter last week.

“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,” WMEL general manager Don 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.”

Marshall's letter to the authority says, "It has been the longstanding policy of this office to refrain from publicly commenting on potential litigation, but I would welcome a private discussion of your request."

Carl Cole, an attorney representing the West Morgan-East Lawrence water authority, said the authority is glad to meet with Marshall, but the AG's office also has information about the water concerns, dating back to 2016 meetings. He issued a statement on the water authority's behalf Thursday afternoon.

“The first thing about the letter, water authority lawyers, as the previous letter indicates, had numerous meetings over multiple days, with multiple people in the Attorney General’s office, including (then-)Attorney General Luther Strange, (then-chief deputy attorney general) Alice Martin, (assistant attorney general) Robert Tambling and others," Cole said. “There is information in Montgomery about this case.

“However, we’re ready to meet and discuss the Attorney General’s future involvement as soon as they want us to.  If he feels like additional meetings to get him up to speed are necessary, we’re happy to do that at his earliest convenience.

“We felt like in 2016 the Attorney General’s office was ready to get involved.”

Updated at 1 p.m. to include Cole statement.