Georgia Denim Mill Bans PFAS to Settle Lawsuit

America’s biggest denim manufacturing site and supplier to well-known jeans brands will stop using PFAS after a lawsuit took aim at its wastewater output.

Mount Vernon Mills last week said that by Dec. 31 its mill in Trion, Ga. will stop using per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also called “forever chemicals,” to create water- and stain-resistant products. The move is part of a settlement with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI). On May 8 they sued the mill, which claims it’s the largest producer of denim on U.S. shores, and the town of Trion under the Clean Water Act, citing harm to Georgia’s Chattooga River and Alabama’s Weiss Lake, which are connected by the Coosa River, and local residents.

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The lawsuit claimed that the mill discharges roughly 3.2 million gallons of PFAS- and chemical-contaminated wastewater daily into the municipal treatment plant in Trion, which couldn’t remove the chemicals from the water “because of their persistence in the environment.” In turn, the plant’s tainted effluence “has contaminated the Chattooga River watershed with PFAS for the past several years.” Last year, SELC notified the mill and its hometown that it planned to sue.

Last week Mount Vernon Mills, CRBI and the town of Trion agreed to resolve the lawsuit. Under the terms, the mill must eliminate PFAS from its operations in Trion. “This agreement serves as a model for how Georgia’s textile industry can work alongside communities to ensure safer water for everyone,” SELC senior attorney Chris Bowers said in a statement. “Industrial polluters are required by law to control PFAS pollution instead of placing the burden on communities downstream.”

“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,” Bowers continued. “The proposed consent decree, which requires Mount Vernon to stop using PFAS at this mill, puts long overdue restrictions on these harmful chemical releases.”

Mount Vernon Mills said that eliminating PFAS resolves the dispute while responding to modern consumer expectations. It is now looking to develop or adopt effective, eco-friendly performance solutions.

“The trends around PFAS usage have continued to evolve, and Mount Vernon is committed to evolve with the regulations, and to be cooperative with regulators along with being conscious of what is best for our employees and our surrounding communities,” CEO Bill Duncan said in a statement. “For instance, after long chain PFAS were determined to be an issue some years ago, Mount Vernon worked quickly to move away from that chemistry to what was at the time and still up until recently was believed to be environmentally friendly short-chain formulas. I would note this change is happening before any standard related to Mount Vernon’s use of these chemicals exists.”

Duncan declined to respond to additional questions about denim production at the Trion facility, which recently upgraded finishing equipment and initiated a loom replacement program. Mount Vernon Mills’ website says the plant produces moisture-wicking, oil-repellent denim made using U.S.-grown cotton. The Trion facility has supplied brands including American Giant, Wrangler and Carhartt, and pumped out 800,000 yards of denim fabric each week back 2018.

According to CRBI executive director Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, “Ending use of PFAS in textile production at this facility is an important step to finally dealing with ongoing contamination in our region.” The agreement shows “there are alternatives to using these chemicals in manufacturing in the first place,” he added.

SELC senior attorney Jean Zhuang said it’s just a matter of time before state or federal legislation forces companies to deal with their role in the PFAS problem. “[The Environmental Protection Agency] has made clear that our states have the power and obligation to properly control industrial sources of PFAS like Mount Vernon’s,” she said.

Zhuang went on to say that “[w]hen pressured, the industries that use and manufacture these chemicals can either treat for them or find alternatives so that we aren’t exposed to avoidable toxic pollution. What this consent decree shows is that communities don’t need to live with PFAS in their drinking water, rivers, and lakes.”

In February, the EPA announced $2 billion in available funding from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure law to address “emerging contaminants” like PFAS in the nation’s drinking water. In April, it issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) and solicited public input about potentially designating PFAS under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). California‘s law banning PFAS in apparel, footwear and cookware will take effect in 2025.

Kayakers on the Chattooga River in Georgia.
The Chattooga River in Georgia.

The industry is developing new technologies to replace PFAS, from Impermea Materials’ Hydro-Tex 1000, a non-toxic, water-based technology creating a breathable, water-resistant coating on fabrics, to Green Theme Technologies’ Empel, employed by outdoor performance brand Artilect. Many textile makers and retailers alike are working to get ahead of regulatory action by ditching the toxic chemicals and adopting other solutions after increasing scrutiny in recent years.

In November, Merrell owner Wolverine Worldwide was cited by Michigan environmental regulators for delaying the launch of a system to remove PFAS-contaminated groundwater from an area that once housed its leather tannery. The move came after the EPA previously instructed the company to clean up around the tannery. While the facility closed in 2011, the settlement required Wolverine to mitigate the longterm impacts on human and environmental health that came from years of dumping chemical-laden waste. Wolverine and its chemical partner, 3M, separately paid out a voluntary settlement of $54 million to local property owners who filed a class action lawsuit claiming they were harmed by the contamination.

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