The battle for Decatur: PFAS contamination divides an Alabama town
By Sharon Lerner | The Intercept | August 23, 2020
Read the full article by Sharon Lerner (The Intercept)
“It was early afternoon when Paige Bibbee got the text from an anonymous number. Bibbee, the president of the Decatur City Council, was supposed to have a call later that day with Barney Lovelace, an attorney who represents the small Alabama city on several matters. But the screenshot of the email that someone sent to her phone in May made it clear that Lovelace was hoping he wouldn’t have to work with her in the future.
In the email, which Lovelace had sent four months earlier to recipients identified simply as ‘lawyers,’ he explained that he and the president and then-chair of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce were hoping to find candidates to run against Bibbee and another member of the city council named Charles Kirby. Lovelace described a plan to influence the August 25 election from ‘very deep behind the scenes.’ While he sought suggestions for possible challengers to Bibbee and Kirby, Lovelace said that he and the two chamber officials felt that ‘the effort to recruit good, electable candidates, and to help fund their campaigns and educate them about how to run a campaign, should probably be done by a group independent and separate from the Chamber.’
According to Bibbee, the issue that turned Lovelace against her and Kirby was contamination from a class of industrial compounds known as PFAS. The chemicals, which persist indefinitely in nature and have caused widespread contamination of water and soil in the area, are linked to cancer and other diseases. The law firm where Lovelace has worked for 37 years, Harris, Caddell & Shanks, represents Decatur in litigation over contamination from the toxic compounds. Lovelace needs the council’s signoff on the final decision on the litigation, and both Bibbee and Kirby have expressed concern publicly that he is unwilling to stand up to the polluters. ‘Charles Kirby is just as outspoken as me on the 3M issue,’ Bibbee said. ‘So Barney knew right off the bat that with us, he had two ‘nos’ without breathing hard.’
The ‘3M issue’ Lovelace is handling stems from two suits that were filed against 3M and other companies that made and used the chemicals in Decatur. Because the city co-owns a landfill where PFAS-laden waste was dumped and operates a local wastewater treatment plant through which the chemicals passed, Decatur is a co-defendant along with the companies, which include 3M, Daikin America, and a 3M subsidiary called Dyneon. But Bibbee thinks the city, where several highly polluted PFAS dump sites have been discovered during the past year, should instead sue the polluters.
‘I asked Barney, “Why are we still defending them?”‘ Bibbee said recently. ‘He couldn’t give me an answer.’
Lovelace told The Intercept that the city is pursuing claims against 3M in a mediation that is confidential ‘by law.’ He added that an agreement reached in that mediation requires 3M to pay the legal fees for the city. Since 2016, the company has paid almost $200,000 to Harris, Caddell & Shanks to represent Decatur and the Morgan County Commission. In an arrangement that strikes Bibbee as concerning, when Lovelace has work lunches with 3M attorneys about the PFAS litigation — as he regularly does — his $250 hourly rate is paid by the company, even though the work he’s doing is technically for the city. Lovelace also represents the Decatur Industrial Development Board in considering tax abatements for industry, which Bibbee and Kirby say puts him in close and friendly contact with companies including 3M.
When I visited Lovelace in his office in downtown Decatur last year, he had kind words for the company. ‘3M has been a significant corporate citizen in this area,’ Lovelace told me, calling my attention to the millions of dollars it has given to local organizations and schools over the years. 3M, which is worth more than $95 billion, has donated to at least 17 local organizations and funds scholarships at four local colleges. And that largesse has helped the company garner goodwill from Decatur’s citizens. The company is also closely involved with the chamber of commerce, whose recently elected board chair is the manager of 3M’s local plant.
But as news of the PFAS contamination has emerged in the local press, that relationship has begun to fray. ‘People down here have always believed a certain strata that told us that everything industry did was good for us,’ said Kirby. In recent months, though, residents have become increasingly ‘alerted and alarmed’ about the PFAS problem, he said. Although both he and Bibbee are now in hotly contested races for their council seats, Kirby feels that being targeted by Lovelace, whom he described as ‘someone who has made his living in smoke-filled backrooms,’ has actually boosted his political prospects.
With the exception of Kirby, who described himself as an independent, all of the Decatur council members and people now running for their seats are Republicans. Yet questions about how and whether to challenge the power structure that has long governed decisions of consequence in Decatur has also divided the city along environmental lines. After Lovelace’s email came out in the local press, Bibbee has received both enthusiastic praise and, online, where some have begun to refer to her as ‘Hillary,’ some hate. Kirby told me that the response he’s received has been overwhelmingly positive. ‘People who have never called me before have called me and said, Get me a sign to put in my yard, and I’ve got a check for you,’ he said.
Lovelace defended the email in a statement to a local TV station. ‘Like any citizen of the city of Decatur, I and the members of our law firm have an interest in seeing good, qualified candidates run for the City Council and the Board of Education,’ he said. ‘I absolutely do not believe this email shows that I have a conflict of interest in representing the city in the future.’
The battle that has erupted over PFAS chemicals in this small Southern town on the Tennessee River is just one of a series of conflicts playing out throughout the United States. Because the federal government has so far failed to set binding regulation of PFAS that would hold polluters to account, the problem is largely being handled locally. And, in countless communities where the chemicals have been discovered, residents are now grappling with — and sometimes fighting over — how to force powerful companies to clean them up…”
This content provided by the PFAS Project.