Final Report-TH

3M, the Tennessee River, and PFAS: A History of Pollution

By Taylor Hawkins

            Many Americans have heard of the chemical manufacturing giant known as 3M. The multi-billion-dollar company maintains operations in many locations within the United States, including one location along the banks of the Tennessee River in a small city of roughly 55,000 people – Decatur, Alabama. Since 1961, the company has maintained a strong presence in the North Alabama town, growing their chemical manufacturing operations over the years and becoming more intertwined with Decatur’s economy and culture, drawing people from all over the world to work at the site.  

            At the same time that Alabamians were enjoying the goodwill brought by the industrial giant, an unseen consequence of 3M’s success was beginning to build up in the Tennessee River and surrounding landfills. The company had been releasing byproducts from the production of the chemical family called PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) into the Tennessee River through contaminated wastewater. At first, not much was known regarding the health risks associated with PFAS chemicals, and the chemicals had a valuable and proven use. Manufactured and sold as a component of firefighting foam, water resistant coatings, and common household products, chemicals in the PFAS family were in wide demand. However, questions about the chemical’s safety were beginning to surface. Internally, 3M employees were seeking additional research into the health risks of PFAS exposure. Studies showed that the chemical was extremely bio-persistent, meaning that it does not break down once introduced to the environment and can build up over time. 3M began to understand that their product may have adverse health risks associated with prolonged exposure but worked to keep that knowledge secret.

            This paper discusses how 3M played a major role in contributing to PFAS pollution in Decatur and the Tennessee River by withholding and suppressing information about PFAS health and environmental risks while allowing the waste to be released into the environment. 3M has resisted taking responsibility for the cleanup of these chemicals. New short-chain chemicals in the PFAS family allowed 3M to replace the most troublesome products, and the company continued to pollute the Tennessee River with potentially hazardous material.

Background of Decatur and the Tennessee River

            The Tennessee River is the largest tributary of the Ohio River. The river originates in Knoxville, Tennessee, and flows southwest through Tennessee and into Alabama, where it crosses through the city of Huntsville. Continuing west of Huntsville, the river flows through a storied city called Decatur, Alabama. Incorporated in 1826, Decatur was originally a popular river crossing for those seeking to travel west of the Appalachian Mountains, but quickly gained importance as the it was “chosen to become the eastern terminus of the first railroad line west of the Appalachian Mountains”.[1] The railroad and the proximity to the river helped to bring new businesses to Decatur and cement its place as a major city in Alabama.

            The 3M Corporation eventually settled in Decatur, bringing with it a chemical manufacturing operation central to this paper. At the plant, chemicals were being produced that would have a lasting impact on the Tennessee river and on Decatur itself.

PFAS and PFOS Contamination

            The chemicals in question were from a chemical family called PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals are used in a variety of applications and have proven value. PFAS can be found in wide variety in products, including firefighting foam, food packaging, stain-resistant coatings, cleaning products, and other commercial applications. However, these chemicals are also considered to be bio-persistent, meaning that because there is no natural process to break down PFAS, they persist for a very long time once they are released into the environment. PFAS also builds up in the bodies of animals and humans that consume food or water contaminated with PFAS.[2]

            Beginning in the 1950s, 3M was a major producer of chemicals called PFOS and PFOA, both in the PFAS family. The company opened its Decatur chemical plant in 1961 and began to manufacture PFOS that it would sell to customers for use in their manufacturing operations, or for use in 3M’s own applications. Some of the more notable uses of the chemicals include 3M’s Scotchgard, a water and stain resistant coating that makes use of the repellent nature of PFAS. They also worked with the US Navy to produce a special fire-fighting foam called Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF). [3]

            The manufacturing processes required to produce the chemicals used in these products also generated byproducts and waste in solid and liquid forms. 3M had several methods of disposing the chemical waste. One method included injection of waste into an on-site location called the sludge incorporation area, where the waste was meant to be kept underground. Other disposal methods included on-site landfills or releasing wastewater into the Decatur Dry Creek Wastewater Treatment plant. Eventually, after treatment, this water is released back into the Tennessee River. However, along with the treated wastewater released, the bio-persistent PFAS chemicals are also transmitted into the Tennessee River and the environment. Decatur’s wastewater treatment plant did not have the sufficient capabilities to fully treat the water and remove PFAS from what it released into the river, meaning large quantities of chemicals were unaffected by the treatment. From their sub-terranean sludge incorporation site, PFAS were also making their way into the water. Chemicals from the injected waste would eventually leach into the groundwater that is adjacent to the site, and from there make their way into the Tennessee River.[4]

            In the late 1990s and early 2000s, research was conducted on the distribution of these chemicals into the broader environment. The studies found that PFAS was able to build up in animals, food, and water because of its bio-persistence. In response to this knowledge, 3M voluntarily discontinued manufacturing and using PFOS. However, years of operations at the Decatur plant had allowed for the build-up of these chemicals, and the full picture regarding the health risks was not yet known.[5]

Health Risks

            While operations at the 3M Decatur plant continued, a consensus on the health risks associated with consumption or exposure to PFAS products was not entirely clear. Though the chemicals had been in production for decades, sufficient research into the possible adverse physical effects had not been fully completed. In 2009, the EPA published a provisional health advisory for PFOA and PFOS. In the advisory, the EPA states that even though PFAS chemicals were found in the Lawrence and Morgan county drinking water sources (where Decatur resides), the “levels are not of concern and residents may rely upon public water systems.” The advisory further states that “Epidemiological studies of exposure to PFOA and adverse health outcomes in humans are inconclusive.” Residents in Alabama that had been consuming water from sources contaminated with PFAS would continue to do so, lacking any evidence that their health was at risk.[6]

            In the years following the EPA’s 2009 advisory, more studies and research into PFAS health concerns would be launched, and some would return results that would shift the thinking on the seriousness of PFAS contamination. Just eight years after the EPA’s first advisory, the agency changed its tune on PFAS risks and released new advisories to the public. According to the advisory’s fact sheet, “In 2009, EPA published provisional health advisories for PFOA and PFOS based on the evidence available at that time. The science has evolved since then and EPA is now replacing the 2009 provisional advisories with new, lifetime health advisories.”  The updated advisory was a stark contrast to the 2009 version. Through studies conducted on rats and mice, the EPA was able to finally conclude that PFAS did in fact pose a serious health risk to the people who consumed them, and to the workers that helped produce the chemicals. “These studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).” The new level set by the EPA was 70 parts per trillion, a level set to protect those most vulnerable to health risk: newborns and breastfed infants. [7]

Alabama Residents Affected

            After the updated advisory was distributed, concern over PFAS began to grow in North Alabama. In 2016, new testing of the public drinking water supply found that the West Morgan East Lawrence water system had PFAS concentrations above the new EPA maximum level of 70 parts per trillion. This system specifically draws water from the Tennessee River downstream from the 3M Decatur plant, heavily contributing to the increased levels detected. This discovery prompted the West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority general manager, Don Sims, to issue an advisory to the customers who draw from their water supplies. In the advisory, Sims recommend that their 100,000 customers not drink the water due to health risks from PFAS contamination. [8]

            Though the residents were eventually informed that they had been put at risk by drinking the water, many years of PFAS production and release into the Tennessee River had passed where no indication of risk was presented to the Alabama public. Even in 2016, the residents would be forced to wait until their water was safe to drink again. Special temporary filters would have to be designed and installed into the water system at a cost of $4 million, specifically targeting the removal of PFAS chemicals. From the date of Sim’s advisory in June 2016 until the completion of the filter’s installation in September 2016, months would pass where residents were forced to purchase bottled water to use at home.                                 

3M Knowledge

            While the public was first learning of the risks of PFAS consumption after the 2016 EPA Lifetime Health Advisory, it appears that 3M had knowledge that the chemicals they were producing may have a negative consequence on health and the environment. In 1976, studies conducted by 3M showed that there were elevated levels of PFAS found in the blood of its workers. In 1978, additional studies done by 3M showed that the chemicals they were producing were indeed toxic. However, 3M decided they did not need to report the risk due to guidelines set out in the 1978 Toxic Substances Control Act. [9]

            Employees at 3M who were aware of the research began to question the practice of keeping the information private. Richard Purdy was an Environmental Specialist working for 3M until his resignation in April 1996 over his “disappointment in 3M’s handling of the environmental risks associated with the manufacture and use of perfluorinated sulfonates (PFOS)”. his resignation letter, which is documented as Exhibit 1001 in the State of Minnesota’s lawsuit against 3M over PFAS contamination, he bullets his concerns: 3M’s delay of testing PFOS samples, withholding, restricting, or omitting key information, and “waiting too long to tell customers about the widespread dispersal of PFOS in people and the environment”. Purdy’s resignation letter appears to document that in the years leading up to 1999, 3M knew about the adverse environmental and health risks associated with PFOS use and actively worked to keep the information obfuscated and behind closed doors until they discontinued using the product in 2002.

            In his resignation letter, Purdy’s first bullet point addresses 3M’s historical reluctance to allow internal employees’ request for a risk assessment on PFOS. “For more than twenty years 3M’s ecotoxicologists have urged the company to allow testing to perform an ecological risk assessment on PFOS and similar chemicals. Since I have been assigned to the problem a year ago, the company has continued its hesitancy”. Further, Purdy mentions the finding of “PFOS in the blood of eaglets–eaglets still young enough that their only food consisted of fish caught in remote lakes by their parents. This finding indicates a widespread environmental contamination and food chain transfer and probable bioaccumulation and bio-magnification.” Instead of reporting this important distinction about the food chain that caused the eaglets’ exposure to PFOS, in a TSCA 8e filing to the EPA in May 1999 “3M chose to report simply that PFOS had been found in the blood of animals, which is true but omits the most significant information.” Purdy also claims that “3M told those of us working on the fluorochemical project not to write down our thoughts or have email discussions on issues because of how our speculations could be viewed in a legal discovery process.” This is a serious claim that speaks to the attitude 3M maintains regarding past and ongoing issues with their products, as Purdy points out that “the chemicals the company is considering for replacement are just as stable and biologically available.” [10]

Legal Action & Regulation

            In 2015, a local nonprofit group that monitors pollution and seeks to protect the health of the river called Tennessee Riverkeeper filed suit against 3M, the City of Decatur, the water systems companies, and others regarding the state of PFAS pollution in the Tennessee River. In their notice of intent to sue, the organization lays out the extent of the contamination caused by 3M. They stated that “concentrations of PFOA as high as 4,980 ppb and PFOS as high as 3,890 ppb have been found in groundwater on the 3M site along the south bank of the Tennessee River. Porewater from the bottom of the river bed near the 3M site, which is groundwater discharging into the river, showed average concentrations of PFOA from 0.0977 to 70.4 ppb.” These high levels are directly attributable to the 3M Decatur chemical sites. According to the nonprofit, “3M, is not doing enough to prevent these chemicals from migrating into the Tennessee River at its plant site … 3M should be held responsible for the remedial actions necessary.” [11]

Different Chemical, Same Behavior

            Following the discontinuation of PFOS use in 2002 and the release of more information to the public regarding overall PFAS risks, 3M needed a way to shift to the future of chemical production at the Decatur site. Scientists for the company had settled on a replacement chemical that satisfied the use-case of PFOS but should prove to be less resistant to building up in the environment. The new chemical, called FBSA, began to be used at the Decatur facility in 2009. This short-chain intermediate was to be used in producing the stain resistant coatings still needed by the market. [12]

            However, as part of an agreement to allow the use of the chemical under the US Toxic Substances Control Act, 3M was not allowed to release the new chemical into any waterways. 3M appeared to ignore this order, and in 2016 it filed a voluntary release of information that it had in fact been releasing FBSA into the Tennessee River. Like PFOS before it, new research must be conducted on FBSA to discover health risks and environmental effects, and these studies have not yet been thoroughly completed.[13] Because FBSA is in the PFAS family, 3M should have known there are potential health concerns, and by knowingly releasing the chemicals they endangered the wellbeing of the residents of North Alabama.

Conclusion

            First developed and used for stain resistant coatings and fire fighting foam applications, chemicals in the PFAS family have a history of proven use. At the same time, research has emerged that the chemicals posed a significant health risk to those exposed to them. The 3M corporation in Decatur, while releasing these chemicals into the Tennessee River, intentionally chose to either suppress or not release vital information to the public regarding the health risks of their product. After discontinuing the use of PFOS, 3M continues to use new PFAS family chemicals whose health risks are not fully understood and poses a threat to the people of Alabama through their illegal releases of the new chemicals, even against an order by the EPA. Until lasting regulation is in place, more PFAS contamination will occur along the banks of the Tennessee River in Alabama.

Keywords: Water, Pollution, Factories, Business, Toxics


[1] “Decatur – Then,” City of Decatur, Alabama, May 3, 2019, https://www.cityofdecatural.com/live-work/decatur-then/.

[2] “Basic Information on PFAS,” EPA (Environmental Protection Agency, December 6, 2018), https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas.

[3] “PFAS History,” 3M in the United States, accessed December 15, 2020, https://www.3m.com/3M/en_US/pfas-stewardship-us/pfas-history/.

[4] Jon Attfield, “COMBATING CARCINOGENS AND OTHER TOXINS,” Tennessee Riverkeeper (Tennessee Riverkeeper, January 1, 2015), https://www.tennesseeriverkeeper.org/our-projects/combating-carcinogens.

[5] “3M To Share Record on PFAS with House Oversight Subcommittee,” 3M Company – 3M News Center, accessed December 15, 2020, https://news.3m.com/English/3m-stories/3m-details/2019/3M-to-share-record-on-PFAS-with-House-Oversight-Subcommittee/default.aspx.

[6] Environmental Protection Agency, “Provisional Health Advisories for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) ,” ega.gov, January 8, 2009, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/pfoa-pfos-provisional.pdf.

[7] Environmental Protection Agency, “FACT SHEET PFOA & PFOS Drinking Water Health Advisories,” Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS, November 2016, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-06/documents/drinkingwaterhealthadvisories_pfoa_pfos_updated_5.31.16.pdf.

[8] Dennis Pillion | dpillion@al.com, “100,000 Customers Advised Not to Drink Contaminated Water,” al, June 2, 2016, https://www.al.com/news/2016/06/100000_north_alabama_customers.html.

[9] Sharon Lerner, “PFAS Contamination Divides an Alabama Town,” The Intercept, August 23, 2020, https://theintercept.com/2020/08/23/pfas-3m-decatur-alabama/.

[10] “Exhibit 1001: State of Minnesota v. 3M Co., Court File No. 27-CV-10-28862,” n.d.

[11] Mark E. Martin, “ Notice of Intent to Sue Under Section 7002(a)(l)(B) of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. § 6972(a)(l)(B),” Lawsuit.pdf, 2015, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5f887cbf23d461114a0cf95f/t/5f90cbc2585dd565cc2d8ce4/1603324866926/lawsuit.pdf.

[12] Cheryl Hogue “3M Admits to Unlawful Release of PFAS in Alabama,” Chemical & Engineering News (American Chemical Society, June 25, 2019), https://cen.acs.org/environment/persistent-pollutants/3M-admits-unlawful-release-PFAS-in-Alabama/97/i26.

[13] Chelsea Brentzel, “3M Admits to Illegal Chemical Release in Tennessee River,” WHNT.com (WHNT.com, June 14, 2019), https://whnt.com/news/decatur/3m-admits-to-illegal-chemical-release-in-tennessee-river/.