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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Summerville resident Billy Joe Durham fills up jugs of clean water behind city hall on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 in Summerville, Georgia. On January 31st, Summerville residents were advised not to consume their tap water after cancer causing chemicals were discovered during a quality inspection done by the Environmental Protection District of Georgia.

A former city council member in Summerville, Georgia, has filed a lawsuit against the city of Trion, Mount Vernon Mills and others in response to a water crisis that forced the city of Summerville to hand out bottles of water for weeks and still could cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Earl Parris, a council member for two years in the 1990s and again for four years ending in 2020, is suing for $5 million in damages. He wants the people responsible for the contaminated water to pay the price of a long-term solution.

Parris' lawsuit alleges the town of Trion's Water Pollution Control Plant disposed of sludge and biosolids in Raccoon Creek, which is the main water source for Summerville's water. It also alleges Mount Vernon Mills has discharged harmful chemicals into Trion's plant that then entered Summerville's water source. The suit also names 3M, Daikin America, Huntsman International and Pulcra Chemicals, whose products are used at Mount Vernon Mills to "provide stain resistance and water resistance to its fabrics," the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Environmental attorney Gary Davis is representing Parris.

"As a taxpayer and water customer in Summerville, it's not our responsibility and not our fault the water's contaminated," Parris said. "Somebody's at fault here. Nobody wants to take the blame, of course not."

Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey and City Administrator Janice Galloway did not return phone calls for comment. A call and voicemail to Mount Vernon's office in Trion was not returned Tuesday, and Trion city officials were not available for comment.

Parris is using the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for the basis of his lawsuit. He mentioned several similar lawsuits against companies such as Dupont as inspirations to having companies be on the hook in such cases instead of residents.

"This whole lawsuit is in hopes that the city of Summerville gets a new reverse osmosis plant," Parris said. "That is the only type of plant that will remove" the chemicals.

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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / Mount Vernon Mills denim plant in Trion, Georgia, on July 10, 2015.

How it started

In January 2020, city officials were notified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that water from Raccoon Creek showed high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid.

Those human-made chemicals are used to make carpet, clothing fabric, cookware, paper, food packaging and other materials. The city has said the levels of both chemicals in its water supply have not increased, but the EPA standards changed in 2016.

The plan to lower the levels is to have a new well that could provide enough drinkable water to dilute and mix with the water from the Raccoon Creek treatment plant so the levels of the two contaminants are lowered.

Eventually, a second well would be drilled to completely phase out the Raccoon Creek facility.

Early estimations for the project and a long-term solution were between $1 million and $1.2 million. Now that number is closer to $3 million.

The water has been safe for most people to drink for months. The health advisory was mainly aimed at more vulnerable populations such as infants and pregnant women, according to the EPA.

In September, the city of Summerville told its residents it was making progress on its contaminated water supply after traces of a synthetic chemical were found in the water, with concerned citizens advocating for a transparent and effective plan to ensure everyone has clean drinking water.

An advocacy group made up of residents of Chattooga County was created as a way for people in Summerville and the surrounding area to stay on top of the water issues and to make sure local officials know that people are paying attention and are still worried about the process of getting the water to acceptable drinking levels.

Over the summer, city officials found that a test-well site on Highway 48 will be able to supply the amount of water needed to dilute the current supply and provide drinking water that will meet government standards.

The goal for diluting the water is to have the threshold for the chemicals fall below 70 parts per trillion, which is the state standard. Sarah Sprayberry, one of the local activists, wondered if that method went far enough to ensure people in Chattooga County will have clean and safe water to drink.

Parris also doesn't believe blending the water with cleaner water is a sufficient answer to the problem. And he doesn't believe in asking for a federal government loan because that would still be "the people's money," he said.

"We trust our city leaders, we believe in them," Parris said. "We vote for them to do the right thing and the right thing wasn't happening. What they're doing right now is nothing more than a Band-Aid."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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