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Persistent Pollutants

3M admits to unlawful release of PFAS in Alabama

US EPA barred company from discharging two substances to water

by Cheryl Hogue
June 25, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 26


A chemical structure of perfluorobutanesulfonamide.

3M has voluntarily acknowledged to regulators that its Decatur, Alabama, plant illegally released a perfluorinated chemical to the Tennessee River, which supplies drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people.

The chemical is perfluorobutane sulfonamide (FBSA), which the company began to manufacture and use at the Decatur facility in 2009. As a condition of allowing manufacture of the substance under the US Toxic Substances Control Act, the Environmental Protection Agency prohibited 3M from releasing FBSA into US waterways.

3M says its Decatur plant may also have released a related chemical, a polyfluorinated sulfonamide alcohol, to the river as well. That substance, which 3M calls FBSEE, is a derivative of FBSA. It is also covered by the 2009 EPA order prohibiting release to water.

“We shut down the identified manufacturing operations and are completing internal changes to fully address the issue,” 3M says in a statement.

Achemical structure of a polyfluorinated sulfonamide alcohol known as FBSEE.

FBSA and FBSEE are intermediates used to make fluorochemical products, according to 3M, including water- and stain-resistant coatings. Data on the toxicity of FBSA and FBSEE wasn’t immediately available. The chemicals are in a class of environmentally persistent pollutants known as per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS).

In late April, 3M settled a lawsuit brought by a Decatur area water utility over longstanding PFAS contamination in the Tennessee River, agreeing to pay $35 million to fund a new filtration facility. Weeks earlier, 3M told the EPA about its failure to comply with the agency’s no-release requirement following an internal check of the plant’s operations. The disclosure became public in mid-June after Huntsville, Alabama, television station WHNT reported it.

FBSA has been found in Great Lakes fish (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b05058) and is a precursor to perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS), an environmentally persistent chemical. 3M introduced PFBS to replace surfactants based on perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, a persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemical that the company phased out of production nearly two decades ago.



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