HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - For years, WHNT News 19 has been reporting about PFAS chemical contamination in the Tennessee River. During that time, state officials have been mostly silent on the issue when asked to comment.
WHNT News 19 discovered this week, though, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall is looking for answers addressing the problem.
The state's chief law enforcement officer has written top congressional leaders about the need for clear federal health standards concerning the chemicals.
In the August letter, Marshall said state regulators are unable to evaluate any risks posed by PFAS chemicals or to act properly to remediate sites contaminated by the substances. He argued that is because the Environmental Protection Agency hasn't prioritized its work in developing health-based standards for the pollutants.
Marshall and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey wrote the letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the ranking members in both houses of Congress about their concerns over the federal government's lack of action to assess health risks of PFAS chemicals.
In 2016, the EPA issued a drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS chemicals. Drinking water in Lawrence County exceeded those levels in 2016. The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority reached a $35 million settlement with 3M in April 2019. The money will be used toward installing a state-of-the-art water filtration system.
Marshall argued in the letter, though, that numerous questions remain for communities grappling with what to do when the chemicals are detected.
"State environmental agencies and citizens take seriously any alarm sounded by the EPA regarding potential health risks associated with a contaminant. However, states have yet to get answers to necessary questions such as: what the PFAS levels should be in order to assure that no health risks are present, what variety of PFAS poses the greatest threat to human health, and in what setting does PFAS pose the highest risk? In other words, we can tell the citizens of our states that they may be at risk, but we can’t tell them how great the health risk is, what the impact could be to their health, or what the government is doing to ensure their safety."
Over the last 18 months, WHNT News 19 has been questioning state officials on what they were doing to address citizen concerns about PFAS chemicals. The chemicals, produced by 3M, have been found in drinking water, in the soil and in the Tennessee River.
WHNT News 19 took those concerns to Gov. Kay Ivey, state environmental officials and Attorney General Marshall.
We asked Marshall on election night in 2018 why Alabama was not taking a similar approach to the state of Minnesota which successfully sued 3M and got $850 million for PFAs cleanup. The company is based in Minnesota.
"This is not Minnesota. The laws are very different," Marshall then told WHNT News 19.
It is not clear what prompted Marshall to help craft the August 2019 letter, but it was sent two months after WHNT News 19 found that 3M illegally released chemicals FBSA and possibly FBSEE into the Tennessee River for a decade.
Marshall's letter mentioned the illegal chemical release, but said because the two chemicals are exclusively regulated by the EPA state regulators cannot adequately explain if the compounds pose a health risk to the general population.
A spokesperson for the attorney general's office told WHNT News 19 Monday that Marshall has still not received a response from Congress. The AG's office added that Marshall is committed to facilitating an improved working relationship between the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and federal agencies to ensure the "best possible outcomes for Alabama's environment."