Lawsuit claims Dalton, Ga., carpet companies polluted Alabama drinking water with chemical linked to cancer

Photo by Steve Raper/Georgia Department of Natural Resources A stretch of the Conasauga River

An Alabama water utility is suing North Georgia's carpet manufacturers, saying they polluted the Conasauga and Coosa rivers with toxic chemicals that have undermined the quality of drinking supplies and encouraged many customers to switch to bottled water.

The Gadsden Water Works and Sewer Board in Gadsden, Ala., filed a lawsuit against 32 carpet makers and suppliers, mostly in the Dalton, Ga., area, charging the companies with releasing potentially dangerous chemicals used in stain-resistant carpet into the river from which Gadsden and nearby communities get their water supply.

"Gadsden Water, has and continues to be damaged due to the negligent, willful and wanton conduct" of the carpet makers and chemical suppliers, Russellville, Ala., attorney Rodger Bedford said in a 16-page lawsuit filed in the Circuit Court of Etowah County, Ala., on behalf of the Water Works and Sewer Board of the city of Gadsden. "Gadsden Water has suffered substantial economic and consequential damage, including expenses associated with the future installation and operation of a filtration system capable of removing the chemicals from the water and lost profits and sales."

The source of Gadsden's problems, according to the lawsuit, are perfluorooctane sulfate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used by most carpet makers for stain resistance. The PFOAs are linked to cancer and other illnesses and are not adequately treated by Dalton Utilities' land application, Bedford said.

Dalton Utilities has detected elevated levels of the toxic chemicals in its 9,800-acre Looper's Bend land application treatment plant for the past decade.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in May lowered what it determined to be acceptable levels of the PFOA chemicals in the water from 600 parts per trillion down to 70 parts per trillion. Water samples taken this summer of the Gadsden water utility revealed several instances of PFOA contamination above the EPA-recommended level, including samples that showed 84 parts per trillion of PFOA chemicals in one test and 82 parts per trillion of PFOA in another.

The EPA has issued an advisory warning to area residents about the potential danger of the water. But state and federal regulators have not yet taken regulatory action against the Gadsden utility.

The EPA advisory suggests that sensitive populations such as pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and formula-fed infants served by identified water systems consider using alternative sources of water.

Gadsden Water provides drinking water directly to its own residential and commercial customers in Etowah County, and also sells finished water to the nine nearby water utilities that provide water to their own customers in surrounding areas. Gadsden Water utilizes the Coosa River as its raw water source, specifically drawing its source water from Lake Neely Henry in the Middle Coosa Basin.

Dr. John Guarisco, the Alabama state toxicologist with the Alabama Department of Health, said the state will conduct additional tests of Gadsden's water in each of the next four weeks to determine whether the elevated levels of toxic chemicals detected this summer remain in the water.

"The samples that came back with the levels above 70 (parts per trillion) are being retested to make sure they were the true value, and we want to make additional tests to make sure these were not an anomaly," Guarisco said. "Over the past 18 weeks, including the two samples (above the EPA-recommended limit), the average of the Gadsden water samples for the levels of PFOA and PFOS is 70 parts per trillion. Because these two samples represent elevation in these levels, monitoring of the water system will continue."

PFOAs are synthetic compounds that have long been used by the carpet industry to make carpet stain resistant. Scientific studies have shown the chemicals to be linked with low birth weights and other development problems in mice. In 2006, the Science Advisory Board of EPA declared the chemical "a likely human carcinogen."

The suit seeks punitive and compensatory damages to be determined in a jury trial.

The carpet companies named in the lawsuit have yet to file responses to the lawsuit. The Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Institute, which represents the industry, and Dalton Utilities, which treats the sewage and water released by the carpet companies, did not return telephone calls or emails Friday.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfree or at 757-6340.