3M buys contaminated school property, still facing regulator scrutiny, lawsuits, grand jury

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DECATUR, Ala. — One of the former landfill sites the City of Decatur asked 3M last year to investigate — Brookhaven Middle School — has been sold by the Decatur Board of Education to 3M for $1.25 million.

The site is one of three where preliminary surveys found high concentrations of toxic PFAS chemicals that 3M made at its Decatur plant for decades.

3M said recently it wants to address sites contaminated by its chemicals. But, judging by the company’s latest corporate filing, there are a lot of problems to address, including a request from the Environmental Protection Agency for 3M records on its compliance with the Clean Water Act in Alabama and two other states.

In its April 28 quarterly report, 3M described the EPA’s request:

“In February 2020, the Company received an information request from EPA for documents and information related to, among other matters, the Company’s compliance with the Clean Water Act at its facilities that manufacture, process and use PFAS, including the Decatur (Ala.), Cordova (Ill.) and Cottage Grove (Minn.) facilities. The Company is cooperating with this inquiry and will produce documents and information in response to the request for information.”

3M Quarterly Report 4/28/20

The Brookhaven sale price of $1.25 million is substantially higher than the last appraisal. Morgan County property tax records show the property was valued at $487,500 in 2019. The school board told 3M in December that it planned to sue unless a deal could be reached.   

The deal doesn’t include the Aquadome which is next to the school — that’s owned by the city of Decatur.  

3M’s quarterly financial report outlined a number of challenges it’s facing and said the company is in negotiations with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

When asked about the ADEM disclosure, a 3M representative replied, “We continue to work with ADEM and the EPA to ensure we are in compliance with regulations and our ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship. Being an environmentally responsible company is core to 3M, and we continue to proactively work toward PFAS solutions that are guided by sound science, responsibility and transparency.”

The negotiations apparently include the subject of discharges of PFAs chemicals  into the Tennessee River – at levels beyond what 3M told regulators it was doing.   The chemicals were made by 3M for decades, and are linked to variety of health problems, including some cancers.  

“The Company is authorized to discharge wastewater from its Decatur plant pursuant to the terms of a Clean Water Act National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issued by ADEM,” 3M said in the filing. “The NPDES permit requires the Company to report on a monthly and quarterly basis the quality and quantity of pollutants discharged to the Tennessee River.

“In June 2019, the Company voluntarily disclosed to the EPA and ADEM that it had included incorrect values in certain of its monthly and quarterly reports. The Company has submitted the corrected values to both the EPA and ADEM.

“As part of ongoing work with the EPA and ADEM to address compliance matters at the Decatur facility, the Company discovered it had ‘not fully characterized its PFAS discharge in its NPDES permit.’

“In September 2019, the Company disclosed the matter to the EPA and ADEM and announced that it had elected to temporarily idle certain other manufacturing processes at 3M Decatur.

“The Company is reviewing its operations at the plant, has installed wastewater treatment controls and has restarted idled processes. The Company is currently in negotiations with ADEM to address these and other related matters in the state of Alabama.”

3M Quarterly Report 4/28/20

3M also reported that the Northern District of Alabama federal grand jury that issued it a subpoena in December is looking into the company’s discharges into the Tennessee River.  

“In December 2019, the Company received a grand jury subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama for documents related to, among other matters, the Company’s compliance with the 2009 TSCA consent order and unpermitted discharges to the Tennessee River,” 3M said in its filing. “The Company is cooperating with this inquiry and is producing documents in response to the subpoena.”

The disclosure problems weren’t unique to Alabama.

In the corporate filing, 3M admitted it had  not `fully characterized its PFAS discharge in its permits.’ That took place in at least 3 states, the filing says,  including Alabama, Illinois and Minnesota.   

And, Attorneys General from five states – Michigan New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Vermont – have sued 3M, alleging its PFAS chemicals damaged natural resources and/or contaminated drinking water.  

WHNT asked Alabama’s Attorney General Steve Marshall Monday if he’d consider similar action; his office declined comment.   

The company is also facing a number of civil lawsuits, including from the  environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper, which alleges the company’s chemcials have contaminated the river. They are in settlement talks.

David Whiteside, the group’s executive director, said no resolution has been reached.

“This would be a cleanup settlement,” he said. “A legally binding legal settlement to try to settle Riverkeeper’s lawsuit against 3M. And if the settlement is weak or not to our liking or not beneficial to the good people of Morgan County and Lawrence County then we’ll go to trial.”

Updated on May 6 to reflect property appraisal.

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