Lawsuit Filed Against 3M for Dumping Toxic Chemicals Into the Tennessee River

By Tennessee Riverkeeper

With a major American river poisoned by toxic chemicals dumped into it by one of the nation's largest corporations, Tennessee Riverkeeper has filed a federal lawsuit against 3M Company and other defendants under the U.S. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Aerial view of Decatur, Alabama and the Tennessee River. Photo credit: Google Earth

The suit alleges the defendants' contamination of the Tennessee River in and near Decatur, Alabama with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and related chemicals has created an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment."

The toxins—components or byproducts of 3M's manufacture of its profitable lines of “non-stick" products like Scotchgard and Stainmaster—have polluted the Tennessee River's Wheeler Reservoir, a popular recreation destination and home to various important wildlife species and ecosystems. The Tennessee Riverkeeper's RCRA suit seeks to compel the immediate and thorough clean-up of the contaminants.

As even minimal exposure to PFOS and PFOA is linked to a variety of lethal health hazards, there exist virtually no safe levels of the chemicals in the environment. Research strongly indicates PFOA and PFOS are potent carcinogens and they have also been tied to birth defects and adverse effects on childhood development, significantly decreased immune system function, liver tissue damage and a host of other serious health problems. Consequently, in a May 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS of only 0.07 parts per billion.

However, PFOA and PFOS levels in the Tennessee River near the 3M site are, respectively, more than 70,000 and 50,000 times higher than the EPA's safety advisory.

“We don't mind 3M making profitable products—but, we cannot tolerate the defendants putting profit ahead of the health of people, the environment and the river," David Whiteside, Tennessee Riverkeeper's founder and executive director, said.

“Tennessee Riverkeeper members are both this river's users and guardians. After nearly five decades of 3M's pollution of the Tennessee River, where no one has held the defendants accountable, we felt we needed to act to protect this precious resource and all the wildlife and restore justice to the hundreds of thousands of people who rely upon her waters everyday."

Notably, the Tennessee Riverkeeper's lawsuit is wholly separate from a suit recently filed by local residents. Last fall, residents and a local water authority initiated a class action lawsuit against 3M and its subsidiaries, claiming the residents have ingested dangerous levels of PFOA and PFOS and seeking monetary damages as a result.

Tennessee Riverkeeper's RCRA suit does not seek money, but instead demands the broadbased clean-up of the aforesaid contaminants.

“The rights to clean air and water and to a safe secure environment are fundamental civil rights and as with all pollution, the injuries from 3M's pollution land hardest on the backs of Alabama's poor and minority communities," Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance, said.

3M has produced PFOS at its Decatur plant since the early 1960s and PFOA at the site since 1999. On-site disposal practices have resulted in groundwater contamination and the contamination of the Wheeler Reservoir of the Tennessee River. 3M has also transported waste off-site to nearby landfills. The largest volume has been delivered to the City of Decatur-Morgan County Sanitary Landfill, owned by co-defendant City of Decatur.

Waste was also transported to landfills owned and/or operated by other defendants, like the A.J. Morris Landfill (Morris Farms Landfill), in Hillsboro, Alabama, owned by BFI Waste Systems of Alabama, LLC. Finally, waste was also received by the now closed Bert Jeffries Landfill (also called the Browns Ferry Road Site), which is now owned by 3M.

These landfills all have high levels of groundwater contamination from PFOA, PFOS and related chemicals. The chemicals are also found at high levels in the liquid waste, called leachate, collected from Morris Farms and the Decatur-Morgan County landfills. The collected leachate from both landfills is sent to the Dry Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP), owned by Decatur Utilities. The plant has inadequate treatment capabilities for these chemicals and, therefore, discharges harmful amounts into the Tennessee River.

Tennessee Riverkeeper's RCRA lawsuit seeks to compel the immediate, thorough and verifiable clean-up of all of these areas. Riverkeeper demands that 3M dramatically increase its efforts to remediate up its on-site groundwater contamination, that groundwater at the landfill sites be mitigated, that leachate from the two landfills that collect leachate be treated before discharge to the Dry Creek WWTP and that the WWTP treat its discharge to remove these chemicals before discharge to the Tennessee River. Riverkeeper further asks that 3M be held responsible for the required remediation at the off-site facilities.

“3M profited for decades off of the products it produced that polluted the Tennessee River and now it needs to live up to its moral responsibility—and its legal obligation—to do and spend what it is necessary to expeditiously eliminate the threats to human health and the environment that these contaminants cause," Matsikoudis & Fanciullo, a New Jersey law firm that is representing the Tennessee Riverkeeper, said. Mark Martin, Tennessee Riverkeeper's chief prosecuting attorney, also represents the nonprofit.


Passage of the Chemical Safety Bill Is a Murky Milestone for Children's Health

Pipeline Ruptures Spilling 29,000 Gallons of Oil, Just Hours After Obama Signs PIPES Act

Interactive Map Shows How 6,500 Factory Farms Put North Carolinians at Risk

How Radioactive Fracking Waste Wound Up Near Homes and Schools

Show Comments ()

What Standing Rock Gave the World

By Jenni Monet

At the height of the movement at Standing Rock, Indigenous teens half a world away in Norway were tattooing their young bodies with an image of a black snake. Derived from Lakota prophecy, the creature had come to represent the controversial Dakota Access pipeline for the thousands of water protectors determined to try to stop it.

Keep reading... Show less
Zero Point Zero

Netflix’s 'Rotten' Reveals the Perils of Global Food Production

By Katherine Wei

We all love to eat. And increasingly, our cultural conversation centers around food—the cultivation of refined taste buds, the methods of concocting the most delectable blends of flavors, the ways in which it can influence our health and longevity, and the countless TV shows and books that are borne of people's foodie fascinations. However, there's one aspect we as consumers pay perhaps too little heed: the production of food before it reaches markets and grocery store shelves. We don't directly experience this aspect of food, and as a result, it's shrouded in mystery, and often, confusion.

Keep reading... Show less
About 2,700 square miles of Amazonia's forest is destroyed annually. Dallas Krentzel / Flickr

Earth's Intact Forests Are Invaluable, and in Danger

By Tim Radford

The world's unregarded forests are at risk. Intact forest is now being destroyed at an annual rate that threatens to cancel out any attempts to contain global warming by controlling greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study.

A second study finds that trees in the tropical regions are dying twice as fast as they did 35 years ago—and human-induced climate change is a factor.

Keep reading... Show less
Modern Event Preparedness / Flickr

5 Billion People Could Have Poor Access to Water by 2050, UN Warns

As the world's population grows and the planet warms, demand for water will rise but the quality and reliability of the supply is expected to deteriorate, the United Nations said Monday in this year's World Water Development Report.

"We need new solutions in managing water resources so as to meet emerging challenges to water security caused by population growth and climate change," said Audrey Azoulay, director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a statement. "If we do nothing, some five billion people will be living in areas with poor access to water by 2050."

Keep reading... Show less

28 Activists Arrested at Kinder Morgan Pipeline Construction Site

Despite a court-ordered injunction barring anyone from coming within 5 meters (approximately 16.4 feet) of two of its BC construction sites, opponents of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion sent a clear message Saturday that they would not back down.

Twenty-eight demonstrators were arrested March 17 after blocking the front gate to Kinder Morgan's tank farm in Burnaby, BC for four hours, according to a press release put out by Protect the Inlet, the group leading the protest.

Keep reading... Show less

Three Outlandish Ideas to Cool the Planet

By Jeremy Deaton

Climate change is a big, ugly, unwieldy problem, and it's getting worse by the day. Emissions are rising. Ice is melting, and virtually no one is taking the carbon crisis as seriously as the issue demands. Countries need to radically overhaul their energy systems in just a few short decades, replacing coal, oil and gas with clean energy. Even if countries overcome the political obstacles necessary to meet that aim, they can expect heat waves, drought and storms unseen in the history of human civilization and enough flooding to submerge Miami Beach.

Keep reading... Show less

Those Little Produce Stickers? They’re a Big Waste Problem

By Dan Nosowitz

Those little produce stickers are ubiquitous fruits and vegetables everywhere. But, as CBC notes, they're actually a significant problem despite their small size.

Keep reading... Show less

Despite Trump’s Bluster, U.S. Officials and Scientists Maintain Climate Work with International Partners

Trump has loudly declared his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, but, behind the tweets and the headlines, U.S. officials and scientists have carried on working with international partners to fight climate change, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!