News Feature | January 31, 2019

Regulators, Treatment Authority Disagree On How To Remove Alabama's PFCs

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

Access to clean drinking water may be a fundamental human right, but that doesn’t mean the occasional dispute over how to achieve this won’t appear. In Alabama, a spat involving two counties, a state environmental enforcer, and a private company has emerged over just that.

The West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority (WMEL), which serves Alabama’s Lawrence and Morgan Counties, is suing the Minnesota-based mining and manufacturing company 3M, asking for it to pay for a reverse osmosis (RO) system to treat drinking water.

The lawsuit stems from 3M’s practice of dumping chemicals in the Tennessee River, the source of drinking water for more than 20,000 residents served by WMEL, per The contaminant of particular concern is perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).

But the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) isn’t on board with the request for a new RO system.

“WHNT News 19 just found a letter in which the state of Alabama environmental agency says it doesn’t think that system is worth the cost, and suggested they use a less effective system to clean the water,” the news organization reported. “The state’s letter … admits WMEL’s current carbon system isn’t the most effective filtering system, but … it is the most cost effective.”

According to the report, WMEL’s carbon filtering system was paid for through a $4 million settlement with another chemical manufacturer, Daikin. And even though the state agrees that an RO system would be most effective for PFCs, the $100 million price tag such a system carries is too expensive for ADEM.

In the letter obtained by WHNT News 19, ADEM responds directly to several points raised and questions asked by WMEL. For instance, it noted that a granular activated carbon (GAC) treatment system may be the most cost-effective solution for PFC treatment. But, it’s concluding advice is for WMEL to consider changing its service model entirely.

“Based on your analysis of options currently under consideration by WMEL, it appears it would be in the best financial interest of WMEL customers — and ADEM would recommend — that WMEL seriously consider merging with another drinking water utility or becoming a purchase water system,” Lance R. LeFleur, director of ADEM, wrote. “Such an option could also help restore customer confidence in the quality of their drinking water, since confidence reportedly has been severely damaged in recent years.”

It may be some time before the details of the lawsuit with 3M are settled and it’s difficult to say whether WMEL will take ADEM’s advice about the future of its drinking water services. But clearly these groups in Alabama have some things to sort out in order to keep providing safe drinking water to residents.

For more about how drinking water utilities pay for treatment visit Water Online’s Funding Solutions Center.