LAWRENCE COUNTY, Ala.- WHNT News 19 has learned 3M is paying the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority $35 million in a drinking water contamination lawsuit settlement. According to 3M's financial filings, the chemical manufacturing giant will also cover the costs of any current and future lawsuits against the water authority alleging liability or damages "related to 3M PFAS."
The WMEL water authority plans to install a reverse osmosis system with the settlement money. In a statement released Friday, 3M and the non-profit water authority indicated customers will not have to pay to build the filtration system.
The settlement agreement is a relief for people who get their water from WMEL.
The legal battle between the water authority and $115 billion dollar company started in 2015. The water authority claims perfluorinated chemicals produced by 3M contaminated the drinking water supply for about 100,000 people.
In May 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the guidance on the levels of perfluorinated compounds that would be safe for human consumption. After the EPA changed its guidance, the general manager of the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority told customers not to drink the water because the levels of perfluorinated chemicals PFOA and PFOS found in the water supply were considered unhealthy by the federal government.
The non-profit water authority immediately installed a carbon filtration system to filter out those chemicals. The carbon system went online in late September 2016. Water authority officials have previously told WHNT News 19 the current carbon system is a temporary fix.
3M produced PFOA and PFOS at its plant in Decatur, about 10 miles upstream from WMEL’s water treatment plant. The company began producing the chemicals as early as the 1950s and says they were phased out in the early 2000s. The Decatur site has been open since 1961. There is no federal ban on PFOA and PFOS chemicals. The state of Alabama has an agreement with 3M to try and clean up chemicals at the plant site, but there is no state limit on how much of the chemicals the company can discharge from the plant into the Tennessee River.
It's not clear how much of the $35 million will go directly to water clean up. WHNT News 19 filed a request with the water authority for the full settlement agreement on April 5. An attorney who represents the water authority board said they would send the information when it’s no longer in draft form.