Part of Wheeler Lake “Toxified”: What now

Southern Fishing News has published three stories, four with this addition, on the PFOA and PFOS contamination of at least one area of Wheeler Lake in north Alabama. To review these go to: : : and

In a Spring 2013 EPA Factsheet these findings were reported:
• Accumulation of PFOA and PFOS in blood will occur at the PHA levels, although the magnitude of the accumulation is not known. Decatur residents may have been exposed to PFOA and PFOS through many potential pathways, such as the use of consumer products containing PFCs, the consumption of contaminated fish caught in the Tennessee River, and even through air.

• Another factor complicating the understanding of the elevated blood levels is the lack of data on past (pre-2005) concentrations of PFOA and PFOS in the Tennessee River, which is the source of WMEL’s drinking water system.

• Private drinking water wells
Three of the 19 wells tested had PFC levels above EPA’s provisional health advisory levels for drinking water. These three residences received bottled water and were later connected to public drinking water. Two other homes with private wells that did not have elevated levels of PFCs were also connected to public drinking water. EPA is not aware of any residents presently drinking private well water with elevated levels of PFCs.

• Agricultural wells and surface water
PFCs were detected in 12 agricultural wells, 32 farm ponds and one stream. There are no provisional health advisory levels for water not used as drinking water. EPA is therefore unable to determine what, if any, health or environmental risk may be posed by these sources.

• Biosolids and the soil that received the biosolids
None of the soil samples exceeded EPA’s soil screening values for protection of children’s health (which is also protective of adult health). After learning of the PFC levels in its biosolids, Decatur Utilities voluntarily stopped distributing them in November 2008 and instead began disposing of them in a landfill.

Other federal and state agencies conducted sampling as well, and a summary of their efforts follow:
• Local cattle
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested for PFCs in the blood, tissue and milk samples from local cattle grazed on farms where Decatur Utilities biosolids were applied. The agencies concluded there is “no reason to believe there are human health concerns with consuming the meat processed from cattle grazed on lands receiving these biosolids.” A very low-level of PFOS was detected in a bulk milk sample.


Wheeler Lake looking east from atop Wheeler Dam. SFN photo

• Locally caught fish
PFCs, including both PFOA and PFOS, were detected in tissue samples of catfish and large‐mouth bass from the Tennessee River adjacent to the 3M facility. Fish tissue samples were collected by 3M and Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) between 2006 and 2012. PFOA concentrations averaged approximately 0.74 ppb and PFOS concentrations averaged approximately 806.06 ppb. Based on the PFOS results, the Alabama Department of Public Health has issued a ‘no consumption’ fish advisory for all species of fish in the Baker’s Creek embayment of Wheeler Reservoir. Future testing will determine if this advisory needs to be expanded or reduced. The entire advisory can be found at:

Let’s break the crisis down as best we can.

Who is responsible for the toxic contamination
The guilty parties have been publically, not legally, identified as primarily the Decatur Utilities Wastewater Plant and the Decatur 3M plant that used the chemicals in manufacturing Teflon and other products. Additional publicized entities includes the Decatur Morgan County Landfill where toxic sludge was dumped by Decatur Utilities Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Morris Farms Landfill, owned by Republic Services, a division of BFI, as well as the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Alabama Department of Public Health for lack of competent monitoring and public advisory notice other than a single website advisory.

Two plants west of Decatur, 3M and Dakin, hauled sludge containing PFOA and PFOS chemicals to Morris Farms Landfill containing PFOA and PFOS. Ground contamination areas (where 3M dumped toxic sludge) is still being cleaned up. Another landfill, Bert Jeffries Landfill, was bought by 3M. No details on this privately owned landfill toxic content. Runoff caused by rain and leaching into ground water eventually made its way into Wheeler Lake. Additional industries have been named in a lawsuit filed by the West Decatur East Lawrence County Water Authority whose drinking water has been contaminated by the toxic chemicals.

Potential lethal results from drinking water contaminated with PFOA/PFOS above new EPA standards.

Potential lethal results from drinking water contaminated with PFOA/PFOS above new EPA standards.

An advisory issued last month said the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority’s (WMELWA) water contained unsafe levels of PFC compounds PFOA and PFOS. Both compounds are suspected of causing cancer, birth defects and other health issues. The advisory strongly urged expectant and nursing mothers to use bottled water for drinking and cooking, and for the preparation of baby formula.

Recently, a new release from the WMELWA says their “water has tested below the EPA’s advisory level for PFOA/PFOS.” But, WMELWA General Manager Don Sims won’t retract his advice not to drink the water until the State Department of Public Health lifts the health advisory. However, in the meantime, the WMELWA is still getting water from the Decatur water system whose Tennessee River intake in above the downstream toxic area. According to the Decatur Times, the WMELWA general manager Don Simms said, “In the summer when it’s full pool, we always get acceptable readings,” Sims said. “In the winter, the readings spike high.”

A river graphic is included to clarify the primary area under discussion.

Map of the ADPH advisory. SNF enhanced TVA maps/

Map of the ADPH advisory. SNF enhanced TVA maps/

In a 2009 press release, (Decatur Utilities general manager) (Ray) Hardin said Decatur Utilities will continue to work closely with these agencies (EPA, ADEM and ADPH) and with its industry customers whose operation may generate wastewater containing PFOA and PFOS in some form, to insure its safe and efficient disposition. “We are told that due to the complexity of these substances and the analytical difficulties, it will take some time to establish regulatory limits. In the interim, Decatur Utilities will continue to suspend land application of Dry Creek plant sludge,” Hardin said.

Another prior WHNT story provided statistics indicating the levels of PFOA and PFOS were a hundreds or a million times above the new EPA accepted levels. The community accepted level is zero-clean water in, clean water out.

Decatur Utilities Wastewater treatment Plant is now, just now, installing a temporary carbon filter to remove/reduce the toxic chemicals from the plant’s discharge. Requests for information and answers to questions were refused by Decatur Mayor Don Kyle and Decatur Utilities General Manager Ray Hardin due to current or pending litigation.

One of our outside sources made some important observations. “If sampling results support the mid-channel north boundary, then barge propeller action at lower lake levels must be spreading the PFOS/PFOA further downstream as the turbid water behind the tug boats can be seen sucking up the lake bottom at the channel narrows in the approach to Decatur and upstream.

Take note. On U.S. Highway 20 adjacent to the remedial soil removal and encapsulation  black sheeting to reduce or eliminate rain water runoff cab be seen. Since the 120+ acres of top soil is being removed, that must mean there is an aerosol deposition from the plant operations to create a plume of PFOS/PFOA deposits. Wonder what the aerosol plume footprint looks like as 3M must have that study to facilitate their remedial actions of soil removal and encapsulation.”

 Wheeler Lake runs by Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant downstream from the toxic advisory area. TVA photo

Wheeler Lake runs by Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant downstream from the toxic advisory area. TVA photo

Another knowledgable source passed on that the first remedial action by 3M on the soil encapsulation failed inspection and is now being re-done in a more thorough manner. Hence, several more years of work scheduled for completion of the remediation.

Having TVA test the water at their water intakes at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant would provide an indication of the lake plume (spread pattern) footprint on the north shore of Wheeler lake. TVA should be tasked to do so.

The remediation of the 3M ground dump sites is an overdue step in the right direction, results not withstanding. Decatur Utilities installation of a temporary carbon filter is good. But is than adequate. The anticipated permanent PFOA and PFOS removal filter is better. The Decatur Morgan County Landfill leaching should be handled by the new wastewater filter at the wastewater plant. The halt of dumping toxic sludge on unprepared ground is encouraging.

centaur carbon

Carbon Granules. Calgon Carbon photo

Calgon Carbon, a company specializing in chemical removal, identifies these cleaning methods for removal of PFOA and PFOS (We realize fully understanding some of these methods require a chemical engineering degree):
• Granular activated carbon (GAC) filters have been recognized as effective technologies for reducing (italics ours) perfluorinated compounds from water.

• Incineration of any concentrated PFC waste is required for complete destruction of PFOS and PFOA. Spent activated carbon containing adsorbed species can be thermally reactivated , destroying the adsorbed contaminants and allowing the activated carbon to be recycled and reused.

• Recent Accelerated Column Tests (ACTs) of Calgon Carbon type Filtrasorb 400 and Filtrasorb 600virgin GAC shows successful removal of perfluorinated compounds including Perfluorobutanoic Acid (PFBA), Perfluoropentanoic Acid (PFPA), Perfluorohexanoic Acid (PFHxA), Perfluoroheptanoic Acid (PFHtA), Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), Perfluorodeconaoic Acid (PFDA).

• The strong fluorine-carbon bond and low vapor pressure makes PFOA/PFOS resistant to a number of conventional water treatment technologies, including direct oxidation, biodegradation, air stripping, vapor extraction and direct photolysis (UV).

• Since each water source contains different combinations and levels of PFCs, as well as TOCs, it is advised that a lab or pilot test (such as an Accelerated Column Test or ACT) be performed on a representative water sample to determine the adsorption zone needed, as well as the estimated carbon exhaustion rate to properly design an activated carbon adsorption system.

Unanswered is the impact this contamination might have on national, regional, state and local tournament scheduling for events on Wheeler and/or the excellent Ingalls Harbor ramp.

We have yet again attempted to give you a through once-over of the PFOA and PFOS contamination issue. Hopefully you have a better idea of what the issue is all about. Your comments on this story are invited.

One Comment

  1. Don Gowen says:

    EXCELLENT RESEARCH AND COMMENTARY on the contamination and pollution of Wheeler Lake, and the importance to the users of this beautiful body of water – especially the fishermen and visitors to the lake. Good work Mr. McDonald.