First of a three-part series [2nd part; 3rd part]

Lawrence County is Decatur’s dumping ground, and Moulton Mayor Ray Alexander is not happy about it.

He’s so unhappy about the Decatur waste products —and the toxins they contain — that he has retained Beasley Allen Law Firm to sue those responsible.

No lawsuit has been filed, but Alexander said he anticipates defendants could include Decatur Utilities, the Morgan County Area Landfill, 3M Co., Daikin America, Toray Fluorofibers and Synagro South LLC.

All of those used or handled perfluorinated chemicals — a known carcinogen — that may have landed in Lawrence County. The PFCs are in its water — grazing ponds, private wells and Crow Branch, the creek that receives effluent from Moulton’s wastewater treatment plant. They are in Hillsboro’s Morris Farms landfill.

“We never should have become a part of this cycle,” Alexander said. “This was a Decatur issue. People have contaminated us without us knowing they were doing it.”

Contamination’s source

How did a Decatur problem become a Lawrence County crisis?

The starting point was a decade ago, when Decatur Utilities discovered a cheap way to dispose of sludge from its wastewater treatment plant.

Think sludge and most people think of what they flush down their toilets. It’s a major component of sludge, but probably not harmful. In Decatur, though, sludge includes industrial waste. For years, that waste has included PFCs. Several local companies, including 3M, Daikin and Toray Fluorofibers, use or have used PFCs, in production.

‘Free’ fertilizer

The PFCs were spread when DU, partnering with Synagro, began distributing its sludge as fertilizer. At first the sludge — “biosolids” is Synagro’s term — just went to Morgan County farms. Demand from Lawrence County farms quickly took over, though, and eventually DU biosolids were fertilizing corn, grass and cotton on 5,000 acres, most in Lawrence County.

Unlike other sludge components, PFCs do not decay. Put an ounce of PFOA, one of the most common PFCs, on a field in 1997, and it is still there in 2009. Another problem with PFCs is they accumulate in humans that ingest them. It takes about four years for half of the PFOA a person ingests to leave the body, and longer for PFOS. They accumulate in the blood, muscles and organs, and they do damage.

In response to Decatur’s problems — specifically, the high PFOA and PFOS levels in Lawrence County soil fertilized with DU sludge — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a national health advisory for drinking water of 0.4 parts per billion. That figure may understate the threat because it assumes two years of exposure. Lifetime residents of Lawrence County have far more than two years of exposure.

The Lawrence County public water supply has PFOA and PFOS, but at levels far below the EPA advisory. The main concern is private wells. A consortium of industries paid to run public water lines to many households with wells to end their PFC exposure.

Numbers in the PFC debate are confusing. The Decatur-triggered advisory issued by the EPA deems anything beyond 0.4 parts per billion of PFOA in drinking water to be hazardous, and 0.2 ppb of PFOS.

Testing is difficult in humans, but in animals PFCs cause sterility, liver problems, birth defects and an assortment of other maladies.

Humans, of course, do not drink landfill leachate or eat soil fertilized with contaminated sludge. But toxins in both can end up in humans.

PFCs from landfill leachate end up in the Tennessee River because no area wastewater treatment plants remove them. PFCs in the soil end up in crops, and humans ingest them either directly or when they eat meat from animals that graze on them.

The most important caveat in understanding PFC concentrations is that the levels in humans often are much higher. A carrot or a glass of water may have low PFC concentrations, but over time the concentration in the human body increases. The human digestive system disposes of most of the carrot or water quickly, but it hangs on to the PFCs. That means human PFC levels increase as exposure continues.

PFCs in Crow Branch

Much of the sludge from DU and Decatur industries ends up at Morris Farms, a Hillsboro landfill. Recent ADEM tests concluded the landfill’s leachate — liquid runoff from the waste — has PFOA levels of 91.6 ppb, more than 200 times the EPA drinking water advisory. The PFOS levels are about 275 times the drinking water advisory.

For one day, Alexander, the Moulton mayor, banned Morris Farms from dumping its leachate into the Moulton wastewater treatment plant. ADEM officials sat him down, however, and he reversed his position.

“ADEM said we were already contaminated, and it was too late to do anything about it,” Alexander said Friday. “Nobody notified us of the danger until it was too late. We were already contaminated.”

Morris Farms pays $10,000 a month to dispose of the leachate at the Moulton plant.

The Moulton wastewater treatment plant, like DU’s, does not remove PFCs. That is less of a problem at DU, which discharges the PFCs into the Tennessee River. The massive amount of water dilutes the PFCs to levels the EPA does not consider harmful.

Moulton’s wastewater treatment plant, however, discharges into tiny Crow Branch. Dilution is minimal, and the creek feeds numerous swimming holes andhosts many fishermen.

The effluent from Moulton’s wastewater treatment plant, according to recent ADEM tests, includes 1.7 parts per billion of PFOA and 0.7 ppb of PFOS. That’s about four times the EPA advisory on the chemicals.

Sludge at the bottom of the pond into which the effluent runs — the stuff children wade through on Crow Branch — weighs in at 83 parts per billion, more than 200 times the drinking water limit. The levels of PFOS, the more dangerous chemical, in the sludge is a remarkable 941 parts per billion, almost 5,000 times the drinking water advisory.

Alexander said Friday ADEM had not shown him these numbers.

He said he is very worried about residents having health problems as a result of contact with Crow Branch, but he has not warned them about the risk.

“EPA and ADEM dropped the ball,” he said, “and as a result we are contaminated.”

Even as he continues accepting contaminated Morris Farms leachate, he said the best solution he sees is a lawsuit against those who created the problem.