THE ISSUE: Wheeler Reservoir is a critical resource for Decatur, providing recreation and tourism dollars. It also is a source of drinking water. The city needs to do everything possible to protect it.
Decatur’s most important natural resource is the Tennessee River, specifically Wheeler Reservoir. Yet the city is failing to take steps to protect it.
A seven-mile stretch of the reservoir — a stretch that begins at Ingalls Harbor and runs downstream — is under a fish-consumption advisory.
Perfluorinated compounds, the cause of the fish advisory, were for decades used heavily in Decatur industries. PFCs provide remarkable benefits in products such as Teflon, because of their unique non-stick qualities. Unregulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, industries had few restrictions on their use or disposal.
Over the last decade, however, evidence has mounted that PFCs are harmful to human health, even in minute doses. They have been linked to kidney cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and ulcerative colitis. They are a suspected cause of a host of developmental problems, including attention deficit disorder.
An unfortunate characteristic of PFCs is they accumulate in fish tissue, especially in bass. Low concentrations of the chemicals in Wheeler Reservoir water can translate to high concentrations in the fish many Decatur-area residents eat.
Another unfortunate characteristic is they are very slow to leave the human body. This means PFC levels in humans with ongoing exposure to the chemicals — such as from eating contaminated fish — continue to increase. A single dose of PFCs takes about 28 years to leave the body, so ongoing ingestion results in ever-increasing concentrations of the chemicals.
With the encouragement of the EPA, local industries no longer use PFCs. The chemicals persist in the Decatur-area environment, however, because their non-stick qualities make them difficult to remove.
Decatur cannot address all of the PFC sources that pollute the river, but they have control over some.
In a bizarre cycle, Decatur Utilities ships PFC-contaminated sludge from its wastewater treatment plant to the Decatur-Morgan County Landfill. While that’s an improvement over its previous practice of spreading it on the fields of area farmers, the runoff from the landfill — which has high PFC levels — goes right back to DU’s treatment plant.
DU also accepts PFC-contaminated runoff from Morris Farm Landfill in Hillsboro.
DU’s wastewater treatment plant is not designed to remove the chemicals, so the PFCs that don’t return to the landfill in sludge drain into the Tennessee River. The PFCs accumulate in fish, and some make it into the drinking water of West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority customers.
DU should consider whether it makes sense to accept contaminated wastewater from Morris Farm Landfill, outside its coverage area, when the PFCs end up in Wheeler Reservoir. The Decatur-Morgan County Landfill should look for ways to reactivate its $800,000 PFC removal filters, which now sit idle.
When it comes to protecting its most valuable natural resource, Decatur needs to be proactive.