WHNT News 19 investigation: A busy year tracking 3M’s environmental impact in North Alabama

Investigative
This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

DECATUR, Ala. — Illegal chemical releases, a multi-million dollar settlement, and a federal investigation. Those are just some of the headlines of the year for 3M’s Decatur plant.

At the start of 2019, WHNT News 19’s investigative team traveled to Minnesota, the birthplace of 3M. We wanted to understand how and why Minnesota took a different approach from the state of Alabama when dealing with contamination tied to 3M’s PFAS chemicals. The chemicals were found at unhealthy levels in the drinking water in Lawrence County in 2016, but the state didn’t step in. After those same chemicals were found in Minnesota’s drinking water — the attorney general sued 3M — and got an $850 million settlement for cleanup.

Our reporting shined a light on Alabama’s inaction on the same issue.  The lack of state response didn’t sit well with people in Lawrence County battling the same problem.

“Oh, that makes me livid,” said Lawrence County resident Beth McCarley. “That’s just unreal. What makes those people any better than us?”

In February, Lawrence County residents who live off County Road 222 received a postcard from 3M. The note alerting them that they lived beside an undisclosed industrial dump site from the 1970s and ’80s.

“Somebody knew it was here. Someone got paid to put that here. Did they get paid, not only to put it here but to keep it quiet?,” asked Lawrence County resident Peter Harding.

We found 3M bought two of these types of properties in Lawrence County for more than half a million dollars. The company told residents it was investigating and would do remediation work as necessary.

In April, 3M settled its drinking water contamination lawsuit with the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority for $35 million. The money will pay for an advanced filtration system to filter out all forms of the manufacturing chemicals. Taxpayers won’t have to pay any additional money for clean drinking water.

Residents said they appreciated the effort to raise public awareness of the problems.

“How do you think we got where we are today?”

“You. Brenda Hampton. Other people that are like agitators. Fighting and pushing and fighting and pushing never giving up,” said Lawrence County resident Darrius Bell.

In June, WHNT News 19 discovered that 3M had illegally discharged certain chemicals into the Tennessee River for a decade. The company reported the illegal releases to the state of Alabama for years — but the public didn’t know about it until WHNT News 19 found the records.

We also raised concerns with Gov. Kay Ivey.

Why then did it take me finding documents for the public to be made aware that 3M was violating for 10 years by releasing toxic chemicals into the Tennessee River with ADEM’s approval?

“I have a lot of respect for ADEM’s authority…  but in this case, we need solutions on the table and I’m not seeing many of those solutions,” Ivey said. “While I have respect for the ADEM and their operations I look forward to having some solutions to address the concerns of those citizens.”

The matter remains under investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The City of Decatur pushed for another environmental review.

We really learned about this from you. Okay…  and we appreciate what you shared with the public and with us,” said Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling.

In July,  Bowling announced 3M would investigate three old landfills in Decatur and Morgan County. One of the sites — the former Brookhaven Middle School property — and current home of Decatur’s Aquadome Recreation Center.

In September, the EPA released a report that found 3M lacked a state discharge permit for a chemical it had already discharged. The EPA also said 3M waited three years to report hundreds of instances of incorrect discharge information to environmental regulators.

“This is crazy. I mean there should be public outrage,” said Jordan Landers, a former Brookhaven student.

In November, 3M submitted preliminary studies of three old Morgan County landfills to Alabama regulators. All of the properties — including the former Brookhaven Middle School site — had high levels of 3M’s PFAS chemicals on it.

But the mayor who announced the investigation declined to discuss it publicly.

A spokesperson for 3M released this statement about the landfills in November.

“Based on the results of initial screening activities, 3M will work with our environmental consultant, GHD, to conduct a Preliminary Investigation of soil, groundwater and surface water consistent with the Alabama Environmental Investigation and Remediation Guidance document and the requirements of the Alabama Voluntary Clean-up Program. The next steps will be dependent on the findings of the Preliminary Investigation.”

In December, the Decatur City Council was asked to sign a non-disclosure form related to ongoing mediation in two lawsuits involving 3M. If signed, the city council would be barred from alerting the public of a health threat related to the litigation without a vote.

But at least four council members — including Council President Paige Bibbee — refused to sign the form.

“It would be my duty, just a human duty, to go out and inform people, ‘Hey, we may have a problem,'” said Bibbee

WHNT News 19 has learned Decatur Utilities and Morgan County commissioners have signed a non-disclosure form related to the 3M lawsuit mediation.

And speaking of 3M lawsuits, the Decatur City School system has filed a notice of intent to sue 3M over the chemicals found on the Brookhaven Middle School property. DCS says it hopes it won’t have to file a lawsuit — but it can when the 60-day notice of intent expires on January 26, 2020.

3M released a statement to WHNT News 19 when asked about the school system announcing its intent to sue the company.

3M lawfully disposed of waste at the former Brookhaven landfill. We have publicly shared that we are investigating Brookhaven and certain other closed waste disposal sites in Morgan and Lawrence Counties, and we will work with ADEM to ensure these sites are treated according to 21st century waste management standards, as necessary.”

As always, you can count on our investigative team to keep you posted on the developments in the new year.

Trending Stories