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Persistent Pollutants

3M to cut PFAS releases from Alabama plant

Company to test 5 chemicals for toxicity

by Cheryl Hogue
July 28, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 30


Drawing shows chemical structure of perfluorobutane sulfonamide, also known as FBSA.

3M will implement tighter controls to curb the release of fluorochemicals from its factory in Decatur, Alabama, under a consent order between the company and the state. The company will also run toxicity studies on five per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) it manufactures.

The order, which involves no monetary penalty unless 3M fails to meet its terms, is focused on dozens of PFAS entering water, air, and soil from the plant. It stems from 3M’s 2019 disclosure that the facility, which manufactures specialty chemicals, polymers, energy-efficient window films, and plastics, was illegally discharging PFAS into the Tennessee River. The legal deal, completed July 24, requires 3M to beef up its wastewater treatment to filter out PFAS before the water is discharged into the river.

Drawing shows chemical structure of 2-(perfluorobutanesulfonamido)ethanol, also known as FBSE,

The order also calls for 3M to design and install technology that will capture or destroy PFAS emissions from the plant. Airborne PFAS can deposit in water and soil at considerable distances from an emission source. The order requires 3M to first study feasibility of emissions control technologies and report to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management on which option the company is selecting. 3M must install the technology within 3 years once the department OKs the plans.

Drawing shows chemical structure of nonafluoro-N,N-bis(2-hydroxyethyl)-1-butanesulfonamide, also known as FBSEE.

In addition, 3M will test private wells near the facility for the presence of PFAS. For wells contaminated above health advisory levels of the US Environmental Protection Agency or any set in the future by Alabama, 3M must offer to connect the well owner to a public water system or otherwise provide suitable water supplies. Last year, 3M paid $35 million to fund a water filtration system for a Decatur water utility and to settle a lawsuit.

Drawing shows chemical structure of a phosphonium salt called TBBP:MeFBSA.

In what may be a first-of-its-kind move under a state order on PFAS, 3M will also conduct toxicity testing of five PFAS it makes: perfluorobutane sulfonamide (FBSA); a derivative of FBSA that 3M calls FBSEE; 2-(perfluorobutanesulfonamido)ethanol (FBSE); and two phosphonium salts of a fluorinated butanesulfonamide (TBBP:MeFBSA and TPBP:MeFBSA). FBSA is a precursor to perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS), an environmentally persistent chemical linked to adverse thyroid and kidney effects in laboratory animals that has been detected widely in drinking water, waste water, and food packaging, according to the EPA.

“We appreciate the fact that 3M has agreed to take all the actions necessary to take responsibility after decades of pollution,” says Lance LeFleur, director of the Alabama environmental department, in a statement.

Drawing shows chemical structure of the phosphonium salt called TPBP:MeFBSA.

Michelle Howell, 3M Decatur plant manager, says in a statement, “During the last 12 months, we have identified areas where we can do more and better, and we’re committed to doing our part.”

David Whiteside, executive director of Tennessee Riverkeeper, an environmental group, tells C&EN the consent order “seems like a step in the right direction,” but says the Alabama department has a pattern of siding with polluters over the public interest.


In the list of substances for which 3M will do toxicity testing, this story originally included two different chemical names for the same substance, both abbreviated as "FBSE." The story was updated on July 30, 2020, to remove one of the entries.

The story was revised on July 30, 2020, to say that 3M will test two phosphonium salts of a single fluorinated butanesulfonamide, not phosphonium salts of two fluorinated butanesulfonamides.


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