DECATUR, Ala. – Despite rumblings that West Morgan East Lawrence Water Manager Don Sims might lose his job at a Thursday meeting, the efforts against him gained little traction.
Crowds gathered around WHNT News 19’s satellite truck at the meeting. Everyone who showed up couldn’t fit in the meeting room, so our truck let them listen in.
One customer blamed the authority’s manager, Don Sims, “Statements he made, created panic and uncertainty among the water board customers, and the way it ends up is with a shoving match at dollar general over a case of water.”
But many more spoke in passionate defense.
One said, “We also are asking that don sims keep his job. He was the only one who had the nerve to actually step up and say the water is not safe.”
Another added, “He saved this county to me.”
And a third told the board, “You folks have stood up for the people, and I applaud you, Mr. Sims, for your courage in doing it, and all you other people who stood behind him to do this.”
The meeting took hours and an emotional toll .
One woman told Sims, “Thank you. When this come out, I had just learned, Mr. Sims, that my daughter was expecting. Every day we was aware was a day that she wasn’t poisoning my grandchild.”
Still, water authority board member Mark Clark called for a new direction, “I think Mr. Sims should be asked to resign, and that the board seek out new management for this water board. That’s my recommendation. That’s in the form of a motion.”
But no one would back him. Without a second, the motion failed.
Sims had irked some community leaders when he initially told customers their water wasn’t safe to drink. “I’d like to warn all of our customers, do not drink the water” Sims announced at a June 2nd news conference. He came under fire from several elected officials in both Morgan and Lawrence Counties for issuing that warning. At a news conference the following day, they made their feelings known.
“Nobody was alerted about the announcement that the West Morgan East Lawrence water board decided to make yesterday,” complained Lawrence County Commission Chairman Bobby Burch.
Trinity Mayor Vaughn Goodwin said he found out when his phone started ringing. “I found out about the press conference that we were not aware of,” Goodwin said. He added, “I’m not here to tell anybody how to run their business but I don’t appreciate that, at all.”
And Morgan County Chairman Ray Long said the sudden announcement caused a lot of unnecessary panic among residents. ”The West Morgan water board, they know without a doubt I’m not a happy camper with them,” Long said at the news conference.
Sims explained samples taken months earlier, in December, revealed his water was contaminated with levels of the PFC compounds PFOA and PFOS that were much higher than new guidelines for drinking water issued in May by the Environmental Protection Agency. He did not notify local elected officials before issuing the “do not drink” advisory.
Wednesday, Chairman Long stopped short of saying he wanted Sims fired. “I hope, when they meet, they’ll look at all the options that they have for the customers and do what’s best for the customer,” Long told WHNT News 19 in reference to a proposed rate increase to pay for new water filtration equipment.
We met with Sims Wednesday afternoon, before the meeting. He told us he no longer does on camera interviews. But, Sims did tell WHNT News 19, “If Thursday is my last day on the job, I will walk out of here with my head held high knowing that I put the health and safety of my customers ahead of the convenience of some local elected officials.”
Several of those elected officials have told WHNT News 19 their preference would have been that the whole matter be handled quietly to avoid panic, or in effect without the public ever knowing what they were drinking.
The EPA advisory, issued in May, urged pregnant and nursing mothers to avoid the contaminated water. However, since issuing the “do not drink” advisory last month, the West Morgan East Lawrence system has begun buying water from Decatur Utilities. The most recent samples taken from the West Morgan East Lawrence Treatment Plant show PFOA levels well below the new EPA guidelines for drinking water. PFOS was undetectable in the samples. The “do not drink” advisory is no longer in effect.