Does Minnesota’s $850 million drinking water clean up create a path for Alabama?

ST. PAUL, Minn. - The people of Lawrence County asked WHNT News 19 to find answers after potentially harmful levels of manufacturing chemicals were found in their drinking water in 2016. Our quest to find those answers started with the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority, took us to Montgomery and finally nearly 1,000 miles away in Minnesota.

Minnesota officials worked aggressively to hold a company accused of polluting the drinking water accountable. The state was able to secure an $850 million settlement from 3M for drinking water clean up.

WHNT News 19 has been reporting on the issue for the past few years.

On Tuesday, Feb. 26 WHNT News 19 reported at 6 p.m. that 3M said at the time of the Minnesota settlement it believes there are no health-related issues with PFC chemicals. 

WHNT News 19 contacted 3M requesting comment before the story aired. They responded to our request on Monday. We failed to report the statement at 6 p.m.  We missed it in our email inbox. 

Here's 3M's full statement on what it's doing regarding water issues in Alabama. We reported the statement at 10 p.m. 

"3M works with federal, state and local authorities regarding environmental aspects of our operation in Decatur.  The level of PFOA and PFOS in the Tennessee River has decreased, and it will continue to decrease because of steps that 3M and others have taken and will continue to take in the future."

The chemicals found in Minnesota are the same chemicals that have been found in the drinking water in Lawrence County, Alabama.  WHNT News 19 wanted to know how Minnesota addressed the problem and what it meant for those who live there.

State digs into chemical research

Minnesota had two problems when officials found the chemicals in their drinking water. First, they didn't know what they were dealing with and second, they knew exactly who they were dealing with. The perfluorinated chemicals -- PFOA and PFOS -- were dumped by one of Minnesota's largest employers: 3M.

Those are the same chemicals found in the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority's drinking water, downstream from the Decatur 3M plant.

Minnesota is the birthplace of 3M. Almost everyone near Minneapolis is either employed by the chemical manufacturing giant or is related to someone who works there. Despite 3M's looming shadow, the state of Minnesota went to work.

 “A big problem for the communities was here’s a big employer in our area being hit by a fairly massive investigation and possibly expenses, but I think the bigger concern was their drinking water," Ginny Yingling explained.

Yingling is a hydrogeologist for the Minnesota Department of Health. She says the first time the state heard of the chemicals was in 2002 when 3M reported the chemicals were in the drinking water at their plant in the metro Minneapolis area. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency investigated the plant and a few months later the health department created drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS. Health officials continued to research the chemicals and toughened the standards multiple times.

In 2017, scientists confirmed there was a path for PFOA and PFOS from one person to another.

"The fact that they could be transferred through the placenta and through breast milk. Back in 2002, we didn't have that appreciation," said Helen Goeden. Goeden is a toxicologist with the Minnesota Department of Health. She says the main concern with these chemicals is that they bio-accumulate in the human body. In lab animal experiments the agency found high cholesterol levels, compromised immune systems, and lower birth weights due to long exposure of PFOA and PFOS. Health concerns affecting the most vulnerable among us, babies.

"A mother that's been exposed for decades would then have a child that she would pass part of this on, and then that child would be exposed for decades," said Goeden.

The 2017 discovery of how these chemicals could be passed from mother to baby is why the health department changed their drinking water standards to less than half the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory level. This means Minnesota health officials believe it takes even less of the chemicals to be harmful than the federal government does.

Communities respond to drinking water quality concerns

The 2017 drinking water standards put forth by the Minnesota health department prompted cities like Cottage Grove to make serious changes.

"We had to quickly figure out what we had to do so that citizens of Cottage Grove knew that their water was safe to drink," Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said. "And how do we do that with so many wells affected? We had to react very quickly."

Acting quickly meant Bailey needed to put the city under an emergency declaration. The residents were asked to conserve water usage for three months.

"We were very transparent and had a lot of communication with our residents throughout the process," said College Grove city engineer Ryan Burfeind.

“Everybody loves 3M, but if this issue was caused by 3M they need to be held accountable and take care of it," Bailey said.

Bailey says Cottage Grove considered suing 3M. The small city ultimately decided not to legally take on the corporate giant because officials feared it would bankrupt Cottage Grove.

“If you can get the state to be the one that really kinda leads the charge that’s what I’d recommend," said Bailey.

In 2010, it was the state of Minnesota that decided to take on the $120 billion company. The attorney general filed a lawsuit against 3M for contaminating their water with the chemicals. 3M settled with the state for $850 million just hours before the trial was set to begin. The company says it doesn't believe there is a health issue related to those chemicals, despite paying the state a large amount of money to end a lawsuit regarding the chemicals.

Burfeind said they had a granular carbon-activated filtration system online in 2017. The state paid for the system and it only took 90 days to install. During those 90 days, city officials and residents had several meetings with the state health department. And officials say their current system isn't a permanent fix.

"There is a risk with a temporary system," Bailey said. "That's why I said we want to get to a permanent solution as quickly as we possibly can."

The 3M settlement money will be used to pay for the filtration system that replaces Cottage Grove's current carbon system.

Alabama's response to same problem 

State and local officials have provided no aid, declared no emergency and have given no sign they even see a problem.

The non-permanent solution in Minnesota is the system the people are relying on right now in Lawrence County, Alabama. When the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority sounded the alarm in 2016, they quickly installed the same system that Cottage Grove is using. The water authority did it without any help from the state of Alabama.

As for finding the money to replace it, Attorney General Steve Marshall admitted to WHNT News 19 last month it is possible for the state to sue 3M under public nuisance law, but the AG hasn't committed to actually filing a lawsuit. Marshall suggested they were waiting on more federal health research.

The nonprofit water authority is currently suing 3M all on its own, hoping to pay for a reverse osmosis system that could cost more than $100 million.

As time passes, the people of Lawrence County feel ignored. They're frustrated, and they say they feel like giving up.

"They don't give a rip about us," Beth McCarley said. "And it makes me really, really angry."

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is responsible for protecting the state's waters. The head of the agency agrees the reverse osmosis system is the most effective at filtering out all forms of the toxic chemicals, but says it's not worth spending the money.

The residents of Lawrence County are left to wait and wonder why a temporary fix for Minnesota, is suggested as the permanent solution for Alabama.

"Oh, that makes me livid," McCarley said. "That's just unreal. What makes those people any better than us?"

Alabama's inaction resonates all the way up to Cottage Grove, Minnesota.

“The governor and the attorney general answer to the state that you live in. It’s important we need to get it fixed, you need to get it fixed. Hold them accountable don’t just let them push under the rug because it’s not going to go away," says Mayor Bailey.

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