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3M Co. and Others Sued in Tennessee River Pollution Case

Another large corporation is accused of misleading the public about its impacts on the environment. This time, drinking water is at stake.
Kayla Matthews | @KaylaEMatthews | December 13, 2017, 1pm PST
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A paddle wheel boat on the Tennessee River near Decatur, Alabama.
Charles Knowles

It's one of the latest in a long string of multi-continental corporations caught behaving badly. 3M is the most familiar name among several companies facing serious legal action thanks to a years-long habit of underreporting the extent to which they pollute the environment.

Thanks to some high-profile lawsuits and a few very real cases of cancer, the plight of the Tennessee River—and 3M's role in making it too toxic to drink from—is at last coming to light.

What Is 3M Accused of Doing?

These are perilous times for the environment—and that makes this story about 3M even more damaging to the public's trust. According to investigators and regulators, 3M Co. has understated the extent of their contamination of the Tennessee River with a variety of harmful synthetic chemicals by a factor of 1,000.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management has sent a formal letter of protest to 3M—a measure that sounds even more toothless when you realize some of these allegations are decades old.

If this story sounds familiar, it's because Volkswagen was also caught in a planet-imperiling lie recently when the company misrepresented, for years, the real-world emissions impact of their diesel automobiles.

These are the types of headlines that just shouldn't need to be printed in 2017. It's fairly common in the Third World for corporations to run roughshod over the environment because there are no mechanisms for oversight there. However, the United States has environmental oversight in the form of federal, state and local environmental and land management agencies. Unfortunately, the federal version appears to have succumbed completely to regulatory capture.

And so: the Tennessee River has been at times undrinkable in a literal and legal sense. In 2016, communities located a full 13 miles downstream from the 3M plant declared their water undrinkable. They cited elevated levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid—both of which appeared greatly in excess of federal guidelines for lifetime exposure, have appeared in several 3M products and are linked to cancer.

This not just a theoretical link, either—in the region overseen by the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority, a lawsuit alleges that 3M's production and use of perfluorochemicals—better known as PFCs—is responsible for the appearance of cancer and other serious illness in 24 or more locals.

A 'Conversion' Error

Back in April, when this story began gaining traction, spokespeople for 3M held firm to the company's claim that they didn't knowingly engage in deception. The story, according to 3M, is that they transitioned from one environmental metric to another, but did not convert their findings before publishing the results.

In other words, all this damage is because of a grade-school-caliber math error. 3M used "milligrams per liter" instead of "micrograms per liter" for at least four years between 2012 and early 2016.

3M is right when they say their findings would have been factually accurate if they'd done the conversion properly. Whether or not that single point of clarity is actually helpful is another matter.

Hubris at Scale

The quality of America's drinking water should never be the subject of breaking news stories.

Nevertheless, more and more citizens from coast to coast are losing faith in the quality of their at-home drinking water. In a 2015 study conducted by the Water Quality Association, 56 percent of respondents were “concerned” or "very concerned" about the quality of their water, to the point where they were willing to purchase expensive filtering apparatuses for their home use.

Meanwhile, as lawyers squint over the difference between "milligrams" and "micrograms," 3M is attempting to write off the alleged damage they have brought to the natural world and to the health of Alabamians as a product of mere incompetence.

Even if gross incompetence were a forgivable trait among industrial and civic leaders, this is merely the latest scandal—and thick bundle of lawsuits—to reach 3M's doorstep.

Attorneys in Minnesota have been suing the company, quite literally for decades, for allegations of meddling with scientific research to make it more amenable to their goals, actively lobbying to keep legitimate research under wraps and choosing not to divulge toxicology reports to the appropriate regulators.

Regulatory capture is a very real threat to the health of Americans across our nation—and 3M stands as unfortunate proof.

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