Georgia textile maker to stop using ‘forever chemicals’

Environmental group sued, claiming pollutant discharges had contaminated Northwest Georgia’s Chattooga River

A Northwest Georgia textile manufacturer has agreed to stop using “forever chemicals” as part of a settlement brokered after the company and the small town that processes its wastewater were sued by an environmental group over the pollutants.

The lawsuit was filed earlier this week in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, against Mount Vernon Mills and the city of Trion. The plaintiff is the Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI), an environmental protection nonprofit based in Rome that works to protect the region’s river system. The suit and settlement add to a growing list of cases in Georgia and beyond over the so-called “forever chemicals,” formally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

PFAS have been widely used in cookware, flooring, clothing and more for decades. The chemicals impart heat-, oil- and water-resistance into products, but those same characteristics prevent them from breaking down in nature, making them extremely difficult to remove from water and soils.

PFAS are thought to be in the blood of nearly all U.S. residents and a growing body of evidence has linked them to cancers, immune system suppression, and decreased infant and fetal growth, among other serious conditions.

Mount Vernon Mills is a South Carolina-based textile manufacturer with a plant in Trion, about 30 miles north of Rome. The company manufactures denim and other fabrics at its facility and sends its industrial wastewater to the Trion water treatment plant.

According to the complaint, Mount Vernon Mills sends more than 3 million gallons of industrial wastewater to the Trion water facility daily, accounting for 94% of all wastewater the plant receives.

The plaintiffs claim Trion’s water treatment facility has the capacity to remove and treat domestic waste, but not “forever chemicals.” As a result, the water treatment plant has been continuously discharging PFAS-laden wastewater directly into the Chattooga River for years, in violation of its state-issued permit and the federal Clean Water Act. Concerns about those discharges have impaired the “use and enjoyment of the waters downstream,” the lawsuit said.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“Trion’s wastewater treatment plant should have required the textile mill to modernize its treatment technology to remove PFAS prior to discharging them to Trion’s public treatment works,” said Chris Bowers, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which represented the CBRI in the case.

The settlement the parties agreed to calls for Mount Vernon Mills to halt the use of PFAS at its facility by the end of this year. In the meantime, the defendants agreed to truck the plant’s contaminated wastewater offsite to be incinerated and to conduct regular PFAS sampling of Mount Vernon Mills’ wastewater before it’s sent to the city’s treatment plant.

Mount Vernon Mills and the city of Trion also agreed to pay $5,000 in civil penalties to the U.S. Treasury.

In a statement, Mount Vernon Mills’ president and CEO Bill Duncan called the company’s move to halt PFAS use a continuation of its “efforts to be friendly to the environment.”

“Our move to now eliminate PFAS comes closely on the heels of evolving science related to all PFAS, and I would note this change is happening before any standard related to Mount Vernon’s use of these chemicals exists,” Duncan added.

The city of Trion did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, the executive director of the CBRI, said in a statement that he was pleased with the resolution.

“Ending use of PFAS in textile production at this facility is an important step to finally dealing with ongoing contamination in our region and should serve as an example to others that there are alternatives to using these chemicals in manufacturing in the first place,” he said.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Several other major cases involving PFAS pollution in Georgia remain unresolved. Many of those also concern pollution in the Northwest corner of the state, where Georgia’s vast carpet and flooring industry is located and where PFAS have been used for decades.

In two separate lawsuits, the city of Rome and a resident claim that the wastewater treatment methods used by Dalton Utilities — the city of Dalton’s provider of electricity, gas, water and wastewater services — do not remove PFAS chemicals. They allege that a vast sprinkler system the utility uses to spray treated wastewater on the land has fouled rivers that supply drinking water to Rome and other cities downstream.

To remove PFAS from its drinking water, the city of Rome is building a new, $100 million water treatment plant and has raised residents’ water bills to cover the cost. Rome is seeking to hold Dalton Utilities, plus several chemical and flooring manufacturers, responsible for paying for the plant, plus other damages.

The city’s case is set to go to trial in less than a month, on June 5. The other case, filed by Rome resident Jarrod Johnson, is seeking class-action certification with other Rome water customers. The U.S. District Court overseeing the case, which is also in Georgia’s Northern District, has not ruled on that request.