Decatur officials mostly silent after chemicals found on former school, landfill properties

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DECATUR, Ala. - It’s been more than three weeks since 3M reported finding high concentrations of manufacturing chemicals on three-decades-old former landfills in Morgan County. But still, Decatur city officials, who asked the chemical manufacturing giant to investigate the properties remain mostly silent on the issue.

One of the sites was the longtime home of Brookhaven Middle School.

The PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to health problems, are the same type of chemicals that were in the Tennessee River and drinking water in Lawrence County. 3M used PFAS to help manufacture products like Scotchgard.

"This is crazy. There should be public outrage,” Jordan Landers said. He went to Brookhaven Middle School from 2004 to 2006. Landers told WHNT News 19 he was stunned to learn high levels of chemicals were found on the property where he attended middle school.

Landers says his fond memories playing football for the Wildcats are now concerning.

"To be falling around and be physically active on the contaminated ground is a little alarming,” Landers said. "Who knows the long term effects it may have on all of our health?"

The school was home to generations of Decatur City School students from 1971 to 2018.

“The land was free,” said Ward Webster, the first principal at Brookhaven Middle School.

Before the school was built on it, the property served as a landfill from 1944 to 1964. When WHNT News 19 spoke to Ward this summer he acknowledged that building a school on a former landfill raised some eyebrows at the time.

"Of course everybody had concerns in the community,” said Webster. "You built a school on a garbage dump.”

Federal environmental regulators monitored the property in the 1980s, later deciding it should not be considered for SuperFund cleanup status. State regulators oversaw it in the '90s and released it from regular environmental testing in the early 2000s.

It’s one of three old landfills the City of Decatur asked 3M in July to investigate. The other two are the Old Moulton Road landfill that operated until 1973 and the Deer Springs landfill that shut down in 1981.

Preliminary screenings through the contractor hired by 3M were released in November. They found high levels of 3M’s perfluorinated chemicals on all three of the sites.

The only Environmental Protection Agency advisory for the chemicals is related to drinking water. An EPA advisory is issued if more than 70 parts per trillion of PFAS chemicals are found in drinking water.

Here's what we know about the preliminary screenings for the chemicals conducted on the former landfills in Morgan County:

Preliminary results from the Brookhaven/Aquadome property from July and August 2019 show PFOS levels as high as 3,770 parts per trillion. That is more than 50 times the amount of the current federal drinking water guidelines.

The preliminary screening results on the 40-acre Old Moulton Road landfill from June 2019 found PFOA levels as high as 67,200 parts per trillion. That number is nearly 900 times the current drinking water advisory.

Site sampling of the 81-acre Deer Springs landfill from May 2019 found levels of PFOS as high 236,000 parts per trillion. The level is more than 3,000 times the amount of the EPA drinking water advisory.

WHNT News 19 went to a Decatur City council meeting on Dec. 3 to talk to elected officials about the findings. Mayor Tab Bowling refused to speak to us about 3M’s reports. He referred us to Barney Lovelace, an attorney representing the city in two chemical lawsuits filed against 3M that also name Decatur as a defendant.

Lovelace told WHNT News 19 that the city and county are in court mediation and they are unable to comment, as the process is confidential. Lovelace added that the city has been proactive in addressing with 3M the issues of PFAS at the former landfills.

At the end of last Tuesday’s council meeting, Decatur City Attorney Herman Marks advised Decatur City Council President Paige Bibbee not to speak with WHNT News 19 about the landfill reports — saying the mater is part of litigation. But Bibbee did speak to us. She is calling for immediate continued testing and correct remediation. The council president added that officials are elected to stand up for the citizens and that she wants to see the problem fixed, not a band-aid solution.

Lawsuit records reviewed by WHNT News 19 don’t appear to include any references to the three old dump sites in question.

Attorney Carl Cole, who is representing the Decatur City School board in the matter, released this statement to WHNT News 19 Tuesday:

“Currently, there is no litigation involving Brookhaven or any of the other properties tested in Decatur, other than the current Decatur/Morgan landfill.”

Cole said the school system is aware of 3M’s reports of the Brookhaven property and is looking at its options with recently retained counsel.

Cole represented the West Morgan-East Lawrence water authority in its drinking water contamination lawsuit against 3M. The water authority filed the federal lawsuit after high levels of PFOA and PFOS levels were found in the drinking water. 3M settled with the WMEL water authority for $35 million in April.

“The Aquadome is a swimming facility that was built here,” said David Whiteside. "There are also baseball and softball fields and soccer fields that children have grown up playing on in the area."

Whiteside is the founder of the environmental watchdog group Tennessee Riverkeeper. His organization filed one of the lawsuits against 3M and the City of Decatur.

"Mother Nature is not going to take care of these chemicals,” Whiteside said.

The environmentalist told WHNT News 19 there are several concerns with PFAS chemicals.

"They are suspected carcinogens,” Whiteside said."They're also called forever chemicals, meaning that once they are released in the soil, they aren't going away. They will not biodegrade.”

3M says it is working with its environmental consultant to conduct a preliminary investigation of soil, groundwater and surface water of the sites. The chemical manufacturing giant said its next steps will be dependent on the findings of those investigations.

A Decatur native, Landers said he understands the relationship between 3M and the city. 3M has long been a major employer in the area. Landers said he hopes it doesn’t get in the way of solving the problems. The former Brookhaven Middle School student wants those in power to remember who they serve.

"Thousands and thousands of kids have come through these halls and played on those playgrounds,” Landers said.

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