Years before water contamination announced, CDC monitored toxic sludge plaguing area families

Investigative

Greg and Rhonda Morgan look at their property.

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TRINITY, Ala. -The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority continues to battle the fallout from declaring their water unsafe in early June.  They made the call because of Perfluorinated chemicals (PFC's), specifically PFOA and PFOS. We discovered that the struggles with these chemicals started years earlier, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that Decatur Utilities had spread sludge contaminated with those same chemicals over potentially thousands of acres of fields in Lawrence, Morgan and Limestone counties from 1996 until 2008.

WHNT News 19 is Taking Action to bring you answers about this long-running problem.

The Sludge

Decatur Utilities contractor trucks used to tote sludge down rural roads in Trinity.  The Morgan family saw them dump it on the fields by their house.

"We sat on the porch and watched them do it," said Rhonda Morgan.

"They would bring a front-end loader out, and then they would dump it into the spreader trucks," Greg added.

Of course, they didn't know the sludge could be toxic.  They didn't know much about it at all beyond the smell. The Morgans said it was sickening, and you couldn't mistake it.  The family couldn't open their windows it was so bad.

But even with the smell, the sludge trucks barely commanded their attention. It was actually the mail truck that changed everything for them.  The Morgans received a letter in 2010 that said the sludge is toxic and they needed to be tested.

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The Tests

The Center for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, would conduct a study.  The agency called a community meeting and tested just over 150 people, selected because they lived near areas where sludge had been applied and were regarded as having a higher risk to chemical exposure.

"I didn't worry about it too much until the tests came back," Rhonda Morgan told WHNT News 19.

The entire Morgan family showed PFOA levels above the national average—some double, some triple the normal range. Their results fit right in with the rest of the people studied.

The Morgan family noticed changes at home, too.

The Health Effects

"There was things happening to us that was weird because it was happening to everybody in the house," said Rhonda.

Of course, the Morgans also get their water from the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority, which would later be declared unsafe to drink.  However, at the time WMEL water was still within EPA advisory limits, which weren't lowered until this year.

Meanwhile, the family dealt with various health problems.

"Most of us is on thyroid medication. All the guys are on cholesterol medication," said Rhonda.

The C-8 Science Panel, the largest scientific study of the health effects of PFC's, linked both thyroid problems and diagnosed high cholesterol to exposure.

The Impact

Greg Morgan describes how his health problems changed everything.

"Things started happening to me. I'd be driving to work, and everything would start going numb," said Greg. "Even trying to drive to work, your hands would just fall off the steering wheel, and you have to be ready to catch it with the next one."

Greg worked at NASA, making good money as a pipe fitter$75,000 to $80,000 a year.

Now he's confined to his home.

"I had to go on disability. I had to leave my job."  He said he didn't have a choice. At this point, the couple lives on $2,500 a month.

Now the white picket fences, the rolling fields around their home-they don't just provide seclusion, they enforce it.

"We used to always take our grandkids to town and spend a lot of time with them, and we can't do that anymore," said Rhonda. "I mean, it's a good thing they love us enough to hang out in the bedroom with us, because we wouldn't see them very much if they didn't."

The Quest

Rhonda does go out sometimes, but usually it's for community meetings, like the one where the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority tried to fire general manager Don Sims, who sounded the alarm about the drinking water. She wanted to stand up for him.

"Anything that I can do that stops this from happening to somebody else, then I want to do it," said Rhonda.

She spoke to warn people, with blood and paperwork to prove her point.

"This stuff is more toxic than they ever realized," Rhonda said.

The ATSDR summed up their findings in a report issued in 2013.

The Water

All the way back then, the CDC identified the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority as a potential problem.

They found that participants who regularly used the West Morgan-East Lawrence public water system as their primary drinking water source had higher blood levels of PFCs.

Their recommendations include:

  • "Continue efforts to reduce the level of PFCs present in the Tennessee River which is used as source water for the WMEL public water supply system."
  • "Continue monitoring for PFCs in the WM/EL public water supply."
  • "Continue providing the community with any new science about health effects of PFC exposure as new information is documented."

Three years later, the EPA issues a stricter advisory level.

Two weeks after that, Sims, the general manager of the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority, tells the public their water isn't safe to drink.

The Morgans already knew their blood tests showed higher levels of the contaminants from the biosludge, but they also get their water from West Morgan-East Lawrence. They rarely use it now.

Still, Rhonda says, "In this county, you've got women that are pregnant and drinking it. You've got women that are breastfeeding and bottle feeding babies. You've got elderly, sick people. I know there's four babies in this county that are tube-fed. It takes a lot of water for that."

The Reason

If the Morgan family dares to ask why, they can't help but look around them first.

"What's really frustrating is, this don't happen in expensive neighborhoods. This don't happen in the high up neighborhoods," Rhonda says, "They put it on the people that is in a lower bracket, a lot of Lawrence county, even poverty level."

She feels like the myriad of politicians who voiced displeasure with Don Sims for going ahead with the announcement abandoned them, "That they were willing to sit back and let them be poisoned every day more and more and more until they could come up with a solution without having to jump in. It really is irritating to me."

The Way Forward

Rhonda has five years of blood tests to look back on, but she's only looking forward.

"Our damage is done," Rhonda concludes.

"Even if it all left us in the next few years, our damage is done. Nerve damage and other things. But our grandkids, you know, there's still hope that our grandkids won't have to suffer and go through this the way we have. And that's all we want."

"We want our grandkids to be safe."

Read more of WHNT News 19's ongoing coverage of the water issues.

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