The general manager of the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority announced on Thursday, June 2, that his authority's water is not safe for human consumption.
Don Sims said the authority's board approved his recommendation Thursday morning to issue the warning because the levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in the water exceed the levels of a health advisory issued by the Environmental Protection Agency on May 19.
The EPA health advisory said water systems that exceed the levels should notify their customers of the health risks and take steps to reduce the presence of the chemicals.
Two of the water systems in the advisory were West Morgan-East Lawrence and the West Lawrence Water Co-Op, which purchases water from West Morgan-East Lawrence for some of its customers.
The EPA health advisory was issued for any water system with a combined level of 70 parts per trillion of the two chemicals in its drinking water. Sims said the average level of the two chemicals during the past 12 months was 80 parts per trillion.
The advisory recommended pregnant and breast-feeding mothers consider using alternate sources of drinking water. For formula-fed infants, the recommendation was to consider using formula that does not require adding water. Other people served by the water systems in the advisory may also consider taking these steps, the advisory said.
However, Sims told a crowd of more than 100 people at a public meeting in Courtland on Thursday afternoon that he did not want to have to choose who could drink the authority's water.
"The advisory said pregnant women and infants should not drink the water," Sims told the crowd. "If it is not safe for those people, why should I take a risk and say it's safe for everybody else? It is not my place to choose who is safe and who is not safe."
Sims has come under scrutiny from government officials for his declaration that no one should drink the water from his authority.
The water authority filed a lawsuit against 3M, Dyneon LLC and Daikin American Inc. West Morgan-East Lawrence contends those companies are responsible for the chemicals in its water. 3M has said it quit using the chemicals a decade ago and has complied with environmental regulations.
An attorney with the water authority was soliciting residents to sign up as a possible participant in the lawsuit. The water authority is trying to get the suit classified as a class action lawsuit.
On Friday, Gov. Robert Bentley said he met with the heads of the state Health Department and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and was "confident that there is not a health-related crisis."
Dr. Eve Brantley, and Alabama Extension Service water quality specialist, said the advisory does not include pets, livestock or irrigation water.
"Pets and livestock generally don't live long enough for long-term exposure (to the chemicals) to be a concern," Brantley said.
At Thursday's meeting, Sims said he didn't care what others thought about his mandate.
"The EPA and ADEM didn't like me making this statement," Sims said. "But I'm not willing to mislead the customers."
West Morgan-East Lawrence plans to build a $4 million temporary system to filter the chemicals out of the water, but it would most likely take four months for the system to be in place, engineer Brian Pate said.
The temporary fix would involve large granular activated carbon filters that would filter the chemicals out, Pate said. He said he hoped the system would be in place by September.
A permanent solution would require building a reverse osmosis treatment plant, which would not be ready until 2019, Pate said. Pate did not have a cost estimate for the permanent system.
During the question and answer session of the meeting, a resident asked who would pay for the $4 million filtering system.
The authority will place a surcharge of $1.20 per 1,000 gallons of water on top of the present water rates to pay for the temporary system, said Cary McWhorter, the authority's attorney.
"We're going to pay for a temporary fix and then pay for a permanent fix and we still can't use the product," a frustrated citizen said at the meeting.
Attorney Carl Cole, an attorney representing the water authority in its lawsuit, encouraged people to sign up for the class action suit in order to be refunded for their water bill.
"We want to recover everything you pay," Cole said. "All of you as class members, we want to recover that back for you. You'll get a check."
A good portion of the meeting was spent by Cole blaming the three Decatur-area plants for releasing those chemicals into the water.
"The water authority has done nothing wrong," Cole said. "This is the fault of the corporate polluters on the Tennessee River who have dumped chemicals in the water for years."
3M responded to the water authorities claims by releasing a statement from Dr. Carol A. Ley, vice president and corporate medical director, 3M Medical Department.
"Although we support the work of the EPA and other regulators, we believe these advisory levels are overly conservative," Ley said. "We believe that PFOS and PFOA do not present health risks at levels they are typically found in the environment or in human blood.
"This view is informed by decades of testing our production workers who were exposed to these chemicals at levels that were many times greater than the general population – often over an extended period of time. Those workers show no adverse health effects from PFC exposure."