If 3M stopped making PFOA and PFOS more than a decade ago, how’s it still getting into the Tennessee River?

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Water escapes from the Morgan County Landfill (Photo: Al Whitaker, WHNT News 19)

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DECATUR, Ala. (WHNT) - Dangerous contaminants prompted an EPA advisory for drinking water, and more of those contaminants appear to be leaking into the water.

3M says it quit making PFOA and PFOS more than a decade ago, but the compounds persist and are the basis behind the current water crisis with the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority. The manager of that system advised his customers to stop drinking and cooking with the water because of the contaminants.

So if no one is making the compound now, where's the contamination coming from? How is it still getting in the Tennessee River? Well, we've identified one of the major sources for the contamination, and it's probably not who you'd think it is.

Some people call it Garbage Mountain. It’s actually the Morgan County Landfill on the west side of the City of Decatur. This is where 3M dumped tons of industrial waste. We’re told much of that waste was contaminated with the compounds PFOA and PFOS. It's buried under tons of dirt and garbage. However, the rain water that seeps down through here comes out at the bottom of the landfill as leachate and it is highly contaminated with both of those compounds.

The landfill operator says Morgan County has one of the most modern and up to date landfills in the Southeast, and he says great effort and expense has gone into capturing the contaminated leachate to prevent it from reentering the environment.

We observed a small stream coming off the property and asked about that water. The operators are not allowed to speak on camera but explained it's rainwater run-off, which is not regulated by state or federal officials. The leachate begins as rainwater that seeps into and through the buried waste. It's collected in an underground holding well, and then pumped a few miles down Highway 20 to the Dry Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, operated by Decatur Utilities.

We obtained their latest permit to operate, and found the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has licensed the plant to discharge a certain amount of the compounds directly into the Tennessee River. The permit was renewed on February 22, 2016. On several pages we found the amounts listed at 26 pounds per day. But when we checked with Decatur Utilities, spokesperson Joe Holmes said, “The 26 has no meaning other than it is a numeric code which tells ADEM the units of the value reported are pounds per day. The actual values shown under the average maximum column are .1150 pounds per day for PFOA, and .1924 pounds per day for PFOS.

In other words, Decatur Utilities is dumping PFOA and PFOS contaminants into the Tennessee River, and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management not only knows it, they approved it.

Environmentalists tell us there are other sources for the continuing contamination, such as rainwater runoff from contaminated areas on and around the 3M site, where there’s an ongoing project underway to cap a portion of the land with plastic sheeting to prevent rainwater from seeping into the ground and into various chemicals buried there.

We felt you should know while Decatur Utilities is selling clean water to the West Morgan East Lawrence water system to assist with their problems with PFOA and PFOS contaminants, they are also dumping those same compounds directly into the Tennessee River.

A spokesperson for Decatur Utilities insists its operations are well within the scope of their permits. The landfill operator points out the wastes were dumped in the landfill long before there were any regulations governing it. Decatur Utilities is now providing the West Morgan East Limestone Water Authority with more than two million gallons of fresh water a day in order to dilute the level of contaminates in their water system.

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