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Opinion | 3M dumped harmful chemicals around Decatur for years. It’s time the public knew the consequences

Sample water from the river for analysis. Hand in glove holding a test tube

Every afternoon during seventh grade basketball practice, I and everyone else on the team would make as many trips as allowed to the water fountain just outside the gym doors to gulp down enough water to keep us from passing out. 

After school some days, we would ride our bikes to an old creek near the middle school and spend hours splashing around, catching crawdads and doing dumb things. 

In the summer, if we were lucky, someone’s parents would take us swimming at the Aquadome — a city-owned swimming pool that is covered by an odd, greenhouse-like dome. 

Turns out, all of that water was probably poison. 

I grew up in Decatur, where 3M apparently poisoned every square inch of land it could find to dump industrial waste. 

That might be a bit of hyperbole, but not by much. 

They’re finding old dump sites that 3M “forgot” all over the place in Morgan and Lawrence counties, and Decatur has that poison seeping into everything. From drinking water to runoff, to the ground under an old middle school to local waterways and the Tennessee River. 

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The old middle school where they’ve recently found high concentrations of PFOA and PFOS contaminants — which were in chemicals that 3M used to create non-stick cookware in the 1970s and 80s — was named Brookhaven. It’s where I and a whole bunch of my lifelong friends spent our sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade years. 

We knew way back then that the school, which closed a few years ago, was built on top of an old landfill. We knew this because there were rampant tales of the school sinking an inch or two every few years. I have no idea if this was true, or if it was just one of those old rumors that one group of kids told to a younger group of kids and no one had Google to check. 

But we never heard a word about chemicals being dumped at the site. 

Neither did Decatur City Schools. 

We know that because DCS, tired of waiting on the City of Decatur to file suit and demand compensation for cleaning up this 3M mess, filed notice with 3M and the EPA last week that it intends to sue the company for cleanup costs. 

That notice follows reports from an investigation of the old landfill site conducted earlier this year by GHD Services, and commissioned by 3M. That report found extremely high levels of PFOA and PFOS at the 40-acre landfill site. 

Of the 40 acres, DCS owns about 15 around Brookhaven. The City of Decatur owns the rest, including the Aquadome and the land where several little league ball fields sit. 

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The team that filed the notice is the same legal team that negotiated a $35 million settlement out of 3M and another $4 million out of Daikin America last year for the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority. 

The Water Authority sued over PFOA/PFOS contamination of the Tennessee River seeping into the county drinking water, making it unsafe. 

And it is unsafe. 

At even low levels, researchers have found links between the chemicals and cancer, thyroid disease, immunotoxicity and high cholesterol. The presence of the chemicals at the Brookhaven site was 11 times higher than recommended by the EPA. 

The EPA is still working out just what acceptable levels should be for PFOS/PFOA chemicals, but significantly lowered the acceptable recommended amounts a few years ago after testing found the chemicals to cause health problems at much lower concentration levels. 

In the meantime, it has become increasingly obvious that 3M was dumping this junk all over the place around Morgan and Lawrence. Reporting by WHNT’s Chelsea Brentzel has turned up a number of dump sites and forgotten illegal releases into local waterways. 

Both the City of Decatur and Decatur Utilities, along with 3M, are defendants in two lawsuits over the chemicals seeping out of landfill areas and into waterways. A number of council members and prominent residents in Decatur have called on the city to file cross-claims against 3M and Daikin. 

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So far, that hasn’t occurred. In fact, the opposite of that has occurred. 

Last week at a council meeting, council members were presented by the city’s attorney with non-disclosure agreements to sign concerning the ongoing legal matters with 3M. The matters the council members weren’t allowed to discuss if they signed the NDA included potential health risks to the public. 

Get that? If 3M revealed in court documents in these legal matters that the Brookhaven site, for example, contained contaminants that could kill small children, the council members would have been legally bound to keep that info quiet. 

They didn’t sign it. 

And I’d like to thank them for that. Because it’s very likely that this poison has been making people — our friends, neighbors, family members and even our pets — sick for decades. 

It’s time for people to know what’s what. To know where it was dumped and where it seeped into water. To know whether the unexplained cancer or thyroid issues might finally have an explanation. 

Or to simply know that everything is safe. 

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And we’d really appreciate it if someone would clean up this mess.

 

Written By

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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