DECATUR, Ala. — 3M is dealing with increased scrutiny surrounding its PFAS chemicals. The chemical manufacturing giant announced layoffs, a DOJ probe, and increased the financial charges it is taking on expected litigation resolution.
The Tennessee River is at the heart of the federal grand jury subpoena 3M received in December 2019. 3M CEO Mike Roman told shareholders this week that the Department of Justice inquiry involves chemical releases at its Decatur plant that may have not complied with its permit.
It’s not clear what the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama is specifically requesting from 3M. However, federal grand juries generally investigative potential criminal matters.
It’s a stunning development in a WHNT News 19 investigation that revealed 3M reported to the State of Alabama for a decade that it was releasing a chemical into the Tennessee River that is prohibited from entering U.S. waterways. 3M admitted its violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act in an April 2019 letter to the Environmental Protection Agency.
3M released this statement to WHNT News 19 on Wednesday.
“The recent subpoena from the Grand Jury relates to previously shared information regarding discharges from our Decatur, Alabama facility that may have not complied with permit requirements. We voluntarily disclosed this information to the U.S. EPA back in April of 2019. We idled the relevant manufacturing operations and immediately began implementing internal changes to fully address the issue. We are cooperating with the United States Department of Justice to respond to its requests.”
Now some Decatur residents and elected officials are wondering what is next.
“I think what they’ve done is disgraceful,” said Hardy Davis III, a Decatur resident.
Davis tells WHNT News 19 that he wants the matter resolved.
“If they`ve been doing something that`s illegal, they need to be held accountable for it, that`s for sure,” said Randy Hill, a Decatur resident.
Decatur City Council President Paige Bibbee agrees.
“They have to be responsible. They have a mandate by the EPA, and we are trusting as citizens, and we are trusting — as representatives of these citizens of the city of Decatur — that they’re adhering to those standards,” Bibbee said.
High levels of 3M PFAS chemicals were found in late 2019 on three old Decatur landfills. The City of Decatur asked the chemical manufacturing giant to investigate the landfills this summer. It’s an issue Bibbee has raised concerns about before. She is hopeful the DOJ scrutiny will expedite the chemical cleanup process in Decatur.
“I’m concerned about the landfills, that we know — our landfill that is currently open — we know there are cells that need to be cleaned up,” Bibbee said. “We have other sites that they’re testing on now that I think there’s been somewhat confirmation. That’s why we’re testing again to see those levels. So, I just want the city to be cleaned up to make it safe for our residents,” Bibbee said.
Councilman Charles Kirby told WHNT News 19 he believes the water in Decatur is safe, but the city has done little to be transparent to the public.
“This process has played out largely behind ‘closed doors’ probably influenced by lawyer(s) handling this for the city and other entities whose interests could be in conflict with our responsibilities to the general public,” Kirby stated.
Kirby told us he wants 3M, Decatur Utilities and the city to pay for independent testing of all properties, water bodies and drinking water for public assurance.
The City of Decatur is named as a defendant in two lawsuits filed against 3M, including one filed by environmental watchdog group Tennessee Riverkeeper regarding chemical dumping in the Tennessee River. Kirby told WHNT News 19 that he wants to city to be removed as defendants and become plaintiffs in that case.
Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling did not respond to request for comment Wednesday evening.
The founder of Tennessee Riverkeeper, David Whiteside, said he wasn’t surprised by 3M’s recent federal subpoena. Whiteside said doesn’t think it will have a negative impact on his case against the company.
“If anything it might positively impact the case by putting pressure on 3M to do the right thing … to comply with the law … and clean up their mess in the Tennessee River,” Whiteside said.
Councilman Billy Jackson said he thinks 3M should be held accountable if the company “knowingly and willingly” violated its permit.
Councilman Chuck Ard declined to comment on the matter and Councilwoman Kristi Hill did not return our call.
3M also announced on Tuesday that it plans to cut 1,500 jobs worldwide. 3M did not say how many workers in Decatur may be impacted but did tell WHNT News 19 all “business groups, functions, and geographies” were part of the reduction.