WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation: Cleaning contaminated water

After half-a-century of pumping questionable chemical compounds into the Tennessee River, a water authority has accomplished a challenging task. The water is now clean and safe to drink. But, it comes at a high cost.

Posted: May 21, 2018 8:28 PM
Updated: Jul 31, 2019 3:09 PM

A WAAY 31 I-Team investigation finds out what's next after decades of dumping chemical contaminants into the Tennessee River at Decatur.

The dumping started in the 1960's with 3M and later Daikin, among others.

Shannon Robertson and her family drink WMEL water unfiltered. Shannon Robertson and her family drink WMEL water unfiltered.

3M plant in Decatur

In 2016, the revelation caused concerns about drinking water for many people living downstream.

Right now, the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority is successfully removing the contaminants to the point the water exceeds state and federal standards.

But, that's a temporary solution.

WAAY 31 reveals why a new process will be a permanent solution and who rate payers want to pay for the cutting- edge upgrade.

Shannon Robertson has followed the water scare in her area. She's confident WMEL water great exceeds state and federal standards.

"When I'm nervous, I drink water!" Shannon Robertson told WAAY 31.

Robertson may be nervous in front of our news camera. But she's not nervous about the unfiltered water her family drinks straight from the tap.

"We're very confident in the water,” she told us.

Two years ago, it was a different story.

"I was really scared,” Robertson said. “I thought, 'Oh my goodness, here we are, we've built this home and now they're saying the water's not safe'."

Across the country, the Environmental Protection Agency issued drinking water health advisories for two particular man-made chemical compounds known simply as PFOA and PFOS.

PFOA is Perfluorooctanoic Acid. PFOS is Perfluorooctane Sulfonate.3M and Daikin poured PFOA and PFOS into the Tennessee River at Decatur.

They're used in products like non-stick cookware coatings, carpet stain repellant and firefighting foam.

In Decatur for decades, 3M and Daikin poured PFOA and PFOS straight into the Tennessee River.

The river’s current carried the questionable compounds 13 miles downstream to the intake of the West Morgan East Lawrence water treatment plant.

That water authority is headed up by Don Sims.

Don Sims is general manager of the West Morgan East Lawrence water authority.

I wouldn't know him if I fell over him on the street," Robertson said about Sims.

But, in 2016, Robertson heard Sims' message loud and clear when he boiled down wordy government warnings to this: “Don't drink the water.”

Don Sims cut through government's wordy warnings in 2016. He was straightforward with his customers when he told them: don't drink the water.

"I thought that was really courageous on his part and so I really admired him for that," she told us.

Still, the bad news was hard to swallow.

"This was scary for a lot of people," Jeaniece Slater told WAAY 31. Slater is the assistant general manager for the water authority.

Jeaniece Slater is assistant general manager at the West Morgan East Lawrence Water & Sewer Authority.

"We're downstream from industry," she explained. "So, we have implemented some processes that remove the PFOA and PFOS."

Slater says, "There's a lot to this process." From the water intake at the Tennessee, the dirty river water is scanned. "For us, we use a laser light to look at dirt particles in the water," she said.

Next, the water pumped to the plant is treated with chemicals.

"We have to go through the conventional treatment first," Slater told us. That treatment is building up to an even deeper cleaning for the water.

Even before the contamination scare, West Morgan East Lawrence water was setting itself apart.

WMEL already takes extra steps to clean water beyond required standards.

Slater showed off a key component of what makes their water cleaner than most. "This is our membrane filtration building," she told us. "We're the only ones in the state that has submerged membranes."

A giant vacuum sucks water through miniscule openings in a pipe packed with thousands of tiny tubes. "10,000 little bitty straws inside here,” Slater showed us. “Water can only go in through the straws and they're little porous holes."

WMEL's submerged membrane filtration system is one of only a few in the entire country.

Suddenly, the 2016 health advisories meant West Morgan East Lawrence's state-of-the-art water processing system wasn't good enough. Next, the WMEL team devised a temporary fix: carbon filters like you use in your refrigerator. But, these six filters would each be about the size of a shipping container.

"When the health advisory came out, we had to come up with a plan immediately," Slater said.

Their plan: a half-dozen containers packed with carbon.

WMEL was able to plan, build and successfully start using its carbon filtration system in 90 days.

Because of the urgency, West Morgan East Lawrence asked a Texas utility to give up carbon containers it just had custom built.

In 90 days, the team put together every nut and bolt and the system was up and running.

It worked.

The carbon stripped PFOA and PFOS from the water.

Jeaniece Slater shows WAAY 31 the West Morgan East Lawrence water authority's carbon filtration system.

Back at her family’s home, that was great news for Shannon Robertson. "They're greatly, greatly, greatly under what the EPA recommends, hardly even there at all now that they have the carbon filtration system.," she told us.

Now, there's the problem of cost. The carbon filtration system had a price tag of $4 million. Plus, replacing the carbon every year will cost $600-thousand.

Aside from the $4 million for the carbon filtration system itself, replacing carbon will run $600-thousand every year.

"This was a temporary solution,” Slater said. “We will have to come up with a more permanent solution. This was the best way to handle this at the time."

Right now, they're testing Reverse Osmosis. Slater says it strips the water of virtually everything. "I, In fact, have to add things back into the water," she said.

Jeaniece Slater shows WAAY 31 the Reverse Osmosis pilot system the water authority is testing.

Reverse Osmosis will also remove any water worries that may remain. "We just want to make sure we're never put back in the situation we were put in before."

The cost for Reverse Osmosis: between $40 million and $80 million. And it's all to clean up a mess left by industrial polluters.

Reverse Osmosis might cost WMEL water authority anywhere from $40 million to $80 million.

WAAY 31 asked Slater who will wind up paying that enormous bill. "I know for us personally, we're trying to do everything possible to keep costs down on the customers,” she said. “Any new technology we put in, we're working to keep that cost low for the customer."

Shannon Robertson says it is crystal clear who should pick up the bill. "I think the biggest players in the contamination of the river should have to pay for it."

The West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority and Daikin agreed to an out-of-court settlement for $5 million. Other lawsuits have that settlement money on hold, though. As for 3M, the corporation maintains its chemicals are not harmful.

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