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100,000 north Alabama customers advised not to drink water due to chemical contamination

By Dennis Pillion | dpillion@al.com

The West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority has advised the approximately 100,000 people served by the TENNESSEE RIVER water system not to drink tap water until further notice due to potentially hazardous levels of chemical contaminants PFOA and PFOS.

The EPA issued a health advisory May 19 that the chemicals could be harmful to humans at lower concentrations than previously thought, and Thursday morning the water authority board decided to issue the do-not-drink advisory on the recommendation of general manager Don Sims.

The utility provides drinking water for about 100,000 people in Lawrence and Morgan Counties and has about 10,000 direct residential customers.

It also provides water for the West Lawrence Water Cooperative, and used to provide for the V.A.W. Water System, which serves the Vinemont area north of Cullman. V.A.W. switched to a different water supply after the advisory.

"I recommend that all our customers do not drink our water, until we are able to bring the temporary system our engineer is designing online," Sims said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

That temporary filter is expected to be completed in September at a cost of around $4 million. The plans call for a granular activated carbon system that forces water through six box-car sized filters before sending it on to customers.

The water authority plans to construct a permanent filter that is expected to be complete in 2019. Authorities at the press conference did not speculate on the cost of the permanent filter system, but Sims previously told AL.com it could cost between $30 and $50 million.

Customers, he said, will be provided more information by mail. The authority said it does not have the means to provide bottled water for its customers in the interim.

Until the filter is installed, the water authority recommends that customers not drink tap water or use it to cook. The EPA health advisory does not impact showering or skin contact with the water. Boiling water does not remove these chemical contaminants, nor do most household water filters. Unless the filter specifically says it will remove PFCs or perfluorinated compounds, it likely does not.

According to the EPA health advisory, PFOA and PFOS have been linked to health problems, including cancer, birth defects and developmental problems in children. Pregnant women, women who are breast feeding, and infants who consume formula mixed with tap water are particularly susceptible to these health impacts, and the EPA's new health advisory level was made with those populations in mind.

"I would rather be over-cautious than under-cautious," Sims said. "I'm not a doctor, I'm not a chemist, but when they tell one class of people the water is not safe, I don't want to be the one to say 'you drink it and you don't.'

"So I said nobody drink it."

Water for the West Morgan East Lawrence system comes from the Tennessee River, downstream from the Decatur area, where 3M and other industrial operations manufactured these chemicals or used them to make consumer products such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabric, and fire-fighting foam.

The chemicals are widespread through the country, and EPA says traces of the chemical can be found in nearly every person who is tested for it. The compounds do not occur naturally and according to the EPA, drinking water contamination is most common near facilities that manufactured the chemicals themselves or used the chemicals to manufacture or treat other products.

When the initial advisory was released eight water systems in Alabama had combined concentration of PFOA and PFOS greater than the new 70 parts per trillion advisory threshold.

Since then, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management said additional testing has shown that six of those systems were now under that threshold. Only West Morgan East Lawrence and West Lawrence remain on the advisory list.

The water authority filed a lawsuit last year against 3M and other companies over the chemicals found in the river, but representatives at the press conference Thursday said the water authority can't wait for the lawsuit to be resolved to begin installing the filtration systems.

"Quite simply, we call on 3M to fix it," said Carl Cole, a lawyer representing the water authority in the suit. "Voluntarily fix this problem that you've caused, or we intend to have a north Alabama jury fix it for you and require you to do it."

Attorney William Brewer, who represents 3M in the matter, said via email that the company has followed the law and disputed the claims that the substances are harmful.

"3M's activities in connection with these materials were not only fully permitted but entirely appropriate," Brewer said. "In any event, we believe the claims against 3M – and recent actions taken by the water authority – are based upon the mistaken belief that the mere presence of these chemicals equals harm."

3M stopped manufacturing both chemicals more than a decade ago, yet the substances remain in the water at elevated levels. Environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper filed a notice of intent to sue 3M last year over contamination of the river.

Dr. Carol Ley, 3M vice president and corporate medical director, said the company has not found evidence of negative health impacts among its own workers, who were exposed to the chemicals for long periods of time.

"Although we support the work of the EPA and other regulators, we believe these advisory levels are overly conservative," Ley said in a news release. "We believe that PFOS and PFOA do not present health risks at levels they are typically found in the environment or in human blood."