After 3 years of uncertainty, Lawrence County residents have $28.5 million promise of clean drinking water

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LAWRENCE COUNTY, Ala. -- Lawrence County drinking water activists haven't had many reasons to smile in recent years, but that's starting to change.

People who live in the county can envision a future where they aren't afraid of what's on tap.

"The people of Lawrence County are glad this problem is fixing to go away," said former Lawrence County commissioner Mose Jones.

It's been years since they've seen or felt any relief.

The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority shocked customers when they issued a "do not drink" advisory in 2016, because there were toxic manufacturing chemicals in the drinking water.

The water authority tried addressing the problem by suing 3M and installing a temporary carbon filtration system. But they wanted 3M to pay for a permanent water treatment solution.

"A nonprofit fighting against a $120 billion company, that's like David fighting against Goliath," said Lawrence County resident Darrius Bell.

And no matter how many times you've read the Bible, it's hard to imagine David beating Goliath when you picture them facing each other on the battlefield.

"I would venture to say most people didn't think this would ever happen," said Jeaniece Slater with the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority.

But last month, after a three and a half year fight, 3M agreed to pay $35 million to settle the lawsuit. $28.5 million of that check will go to build a new advanced filtration system. The water authority says it won't cost customers any additional money.

"It takes a big burden off the people of Lawrence County," said resident Brenda Hampton.

By the end of 2020, a reverse osmosis system will be built in Lawrence County to treat the water and remove dangerous chemicals.

"The reverse osmosis is used by all of your major bottled water companies," Slater said. "And they basically start off by buying water from a treatment plant such as ours. Then they run it through a reverse osmosis process … bottle it and sell it to stores. We’ll actually bring that process straight to your house."

Slater says the water authority has been researching the reverse osmosis system for years. They've been trying to find a way to build the treatment plant without passing the buck to customers every month on their bill.

"This is such a great deal for us and the community because now we don’t have to put that line item on," Slater said. "People don’t have to pay that $9 to get the reverse osmosis.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says the reverse osmosis is the most effective method for removing the chemicals in question from the drinking water. The water authority underwent a pilot process with the system in 2018.

"It’s basically only putting the pure water through," Slater said. "It takes all of your viruses -- everything in the water -- it takes it to a waste stream."

And the water authority intends to run that waste through the same carbon they currently use, so that means the water they put back in the Tennessee River will be much cleaner than what they took in.

"We want to be good stewards of our river too," Slater said. "We don’t want to cause anybody downstream from us any problems. We just don’t."

New federal regulations appear to be on the horizon for several types of perfluorinated chemicals like the ones found in the WMEL drinking water. The water authority says the reverse osmosis system cleans water so effectively it won't be a problem. Officials say once it's installed, Lawrence County will be drinking some of the cleanest water in the state.

"We’re going to be able to offer bottled water at people’s taps, and a sense of security that the water they’re drinking is safe," Slater said.

The people in Lawrence County called it David versus Goliath. And as you know, David had help. Residents believe they did too.

"We don’t have resources individually to fight them individually," Bell said. "And as a spiritual person, I believe God is that help."

The water authority plans to break ground on the treatment plant by October. Officials intend to have the reverse osmosis online by December 2020.

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