LAWRENCE COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) — In June 2016, residents in Lawrence County and other customers of the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority were advised by their water provider not to drink the water, due to high levels of PFAS chemicals detected by the EPA.
The warning brought multiple lawyers to North Alabama, including to the small Lawrence County town of Courtland.
Among the lawsuits later filed was a case known as Billings vs. WMEL and 3M. The lawsuit was filed in 2016, and in July 2022, 3M announced it had settled the lawsuit involving “approximately” 4,900 plaintiffs.
News 19 has spent months trying to understand what happened in the Billings vs WMEL and 3M case. It’s not a class action settlement, meaning there’s no judge supervising settlement payments from the lawyers to their clients. And we have received multiple complaints from residents who tell us they didn’t get paid – or people they helped sign up never got a check.
The EPA announced in 2023 that it will begin regulating PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The agency said studies have found exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes.
The chemicals were made for decades by 3M in Decatur and have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they break down very slowly in the environment. Courtland resident Charles Thompson told News 19 in November that residents remain wary about drinking the local water.
“You can’t even get my Mama, she ain’t even going to cook with that water,” he said. “It’s bad enough, she said, you have to bathe with it, and to cook with it she would not do it. And I’m the same way now, we do distilled water, spring water, all that. A lot of folks around the neighborhood do the same thing.”
The lawsuit was privately settled in March 2022, and no terms were publicly disclosed. The Anniston-based law firm, Stewart and Stewart, represented the Billings plaintiffs, according to court records.
News 19 has made numerous calls and sent messages to Stewart and Stewart asking about the Billings case, including a visit to the Anniston law office, but they did not respond. In February, attorney Taylor Stewart told News 19 he would not talk about the case with us.
For residents who said they signed up – the settlement was good news. Residents told News 19 settlement terms included roughly $3,500 for water customers and members of their households, $1,000 for property owners whose value could have been diminished because of the PFAS-contaminated water and $800 for others affected.
Pastor Thomas Davis of Wheeler Chapel in Lawrence County said he was contacted by Stewart and Stewart to assist in getting people signed up. His church also hosted meetings in February 2022, where the law firm’s attorneys discussed settlement terms and made sign-up forms available for those who attended.
Davis said that given how long Courtland-area residents have been drinking PFAS-tainted water and the reports of potential health effects associated with PFAs, he wanted residents to receive compensation.
“People drank the water, it’s proven that it was poison and I felt like they should get – paid,” Davis told News 19.
The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority sued 3M and received a settlement for $35 million in 2019. The authority built a new water filtration plant using that money.
Courtland resident Rhonda Hughes said she was part of a small group the lawyers enlisted to get settlement sign-ups. Rhonda said they worked hard, signing up people from a 188-page list of names.
“We were told we had two weeks to get all these names, all these people located and the forms signed. And then they never did give us an end date, they just kept telling us to keep going, to keep going, to keep going, until probably end of March, first of April, they just let us go.”
Davis said news of the settlement was well-received.
“Initially everybody was excited because people started getting paid,” Davis said. “But as time went on, people got a little disappointed because some got paid, and some did not.”
Courtland resident Martha Hughes told News 19 last week she still hasn’t received a settlement payment. Last August, she had a letter that showed she’d been invited to the settlement discussion meeting.
“I have my letter here that I received concerning the lawsuit, and I had to attend a meeting at Wheeler Chapel Church. I attended that meeting and signed all forms that was requested,” she said. “And so far I have not gotten any answers or any money or any checks or nobody to notify me about anything.”
Morgan County resident Charles Gholston said he signed up people for the lawsuit settlement in Morgan and Lawrence counties. Gholston said he joined that effort to help people in his community. He said the signed forms went to the lawyers, there were no copies.
After wondering for months why the people he signed up didn’t get paid, he got a call in August 2022 from a Stewart and Stewart attorney.
“He says I just received all of your forms, and he says somewhere between point A which was Wheeler Chapel, and point B which was his office he was referring to, he says, ‘Somewhere between those points they got missing, but I have them now,’” Gholston said.
But no payments were issued following that conversation, Gholston added.
Courtland resident Daisy Harris told News 19 in December she was confused by how settlement checks were disbursed.
“My husband received the money, my son, one son – I have another son, received the money, I have not received the money,” she said. “I’ve called, I’ve texted, I’ve faxed, I’ve done everything, they always told me they were going to call me back and I’ve never received a phone call from Stewart and Stewart back.”
Harris filed a small claims action in February, seeking $3,500. She told News 19 she later received a check for that amount.
Then in June, residents said more checks were being sent out. Gholston said he got 10 checks in the mail for people he’d signed up.
Courtland resident Donny Newman, who told News 19 in November that he’d tried unsuccessfully for months to contact the law firm about his settlement check, also received payment.
And Pastor Davis said he’d been advised more checks were coming.
“Several of the people who did not get paid originally have received checks,” he said. “And I did hear from the law firm there that about 200 applications plus have been found that they thought were lost and more people will be getting checks.”
Gholston told News 19 that he signed up about 500 people for the lawsuit settlement and about 100 have been paid. He said he spoke to a Stewart firm attorney in July, but the outlook wasn’t promising.
“He told me that they had been about ran out of money and there was a good possibility that there weren’t going to be any more checks mailed out,” Gholston said.
News 19’s investigation found a number of people clearly received settlement payments. What is not clear is how many residents who thought they had signed up for the lawsuit settlement did not get a check.
Most recently, 3M announced in June it would pay up to $12.5 billion to settle PFAS lawsuits from across the U.S.