Western Kentucky city grapples with widespread pollution from Teflon recycler
Back in May of 2020, a food producer was looking at the city of Henderson for a $100 million investment in a city-owned industrial site near the Ohio River.
For a city in a rural part of western Kentucky, the business was an opportunity to bring tax revenue and an estimated 90 full-time jobs to the community. The company stressed the importance of one thing: clean groundwater.
But late last year, the company quietly walked away when it learned something officials had been reluctant to share with residents.
High levels of forever chemicals have seeped into the shallow aquifer beneath the city and are creeping toward the Ohio River.
A WFPL News investigation has found three of Shamrock Technologies’ decades-old facilities have polluted Henderson with PFAS chemicals, impacting thousands of people who work, learn and live in the area. The facilities are near neighborhoods, houses of worship, schools, health care centers, grocery stores and wetlands home to endangered species. City and state officials haven’t disclosed the extent of the pollution to residents.
WFPL learned about the food producer, known to city officials only as “Project Scale,” after reviewing thousands of pages of city and state records related to the pollution. The records reveal the pollution is even more widespread than city and state leaders suggested.
PFAS chemicals are linked to increased risks of cancer, liver and kidney damage, low birth weights and decreased vaccine response, among other health impacts.
When WFPL first confronted city officials in August, they downplayed the extent of the pollution, feigned ignorance, and outright lied about its economic toll.
Residents say the government told them nothing about the pollution.
“It’s like not telling people that there’s a tornado coming. I mean, you can’t do anything about it, but you have to at least know this is a possibility so you can act accordingly,” said local high school chemistry teacher Velvet Dowdy.
City officials did an about-face in mid-October after WFPL started asking questions about their knowledge of the extent of the pollution. They hired a public relations firm to provide crisis communications support at $175 per hour and issued a press release about the formation of a city-led PFAS working group.
City spokesperson Donna Stinnett canceled an interview for this story following multiple attempts to speak with the mayor and the city manager.
“Our community leaders take seriously our commitment to protect the health and safety of all citizens of Henderson, and we have many questions about PFAS and its affects [sic],” Stinnett said in an email.
City officials say forever chemicals have impacted the Henderson’s drinking water at low levels, and the city has taken active measures to reduce them.
But the chemicals aren’t just localized to drinking water. They’re in soils, waterways and in the aquifer under the city. If they’re not removed, health experts say they’ll pose a risk for generations to come, if not in Henderson, then somewhere else downriver.
“If I lived in that area, yes, I would be concerned,” said toxicologist Jamie DeWitt, who runs a research lab at Eastern Carolina University investigating the health effects of PFAS.
PFAS are a family of thousands of compounds that have among the strongest bonds in organic chemistry, prized for their ability to resist heat, oil, grease and water. That’s how they got the moniker “forever chemicals” — it takes a very, very long time for them to break down in nature and in the human body.
They’re in everything from nonstick pans to fire-fighting foam and fast food wrappers.
Shamrock Technologies recycles PTFE, more commonly known by the DuPont brand name Teflon, to make micronized powders and inks, according to a 2018 air permit. The PFAS chemicals are a byproduct, company records show.
The company takes scrap and off-spec PTFE products, grinds them up, irradiates them, and bakes them at high temperatures to remove residual chemicals. Air emissions from the process leave through the plant’s smokestacks and are dispersed on the wind to land in nearby communities, records show. PFAS particles also end up in stormwater and wastewater that finds its way to creeks and shallow aquifers under the city.
Shamrock has been operating in Kentucky since the ‘90s. It now has three facilities in Henderson. Two of them process PTFE; a third sorts, classifies, and chops the materials, according to company documents.
Shamrock first discovered the pollution in 2018. Afterwards, Shamrock’s consultants tested soil and water in a grid extending as far as 10 football fields around its three facilities. The company discovered the forever chemicals in nearly every sample they tested, according to a 2020 draft report from the company.
Approximately 10,000 people live within one mile of Shamrock’s facilities, according to an EPA demographic database. Around 60% of the residents are low income, and they’re about two to three times as likely to be people of color than in the surrounding county.
Shamrock’s consultants found PFAS chemicals in neighborhoods, on farmland, near a middle school, around a women’s recovery center, by a pizza parlor and a hospice center, according to the company’s report.
They found the pollution nearby churches, a grocery store and outside the Christian Life Education Center, where dozens of young children learn just down the road from a Shamrock facility. Shamrock Technologies did not respond to a request for an interview.
“Our aim is to be able to assure residents around our facilities that our plants are in full compliance with all federal, state, and local laws. These include addressing potential health risks and environmental impacts from any operation past or present at the site that may impact the health of the community or our employees,” Director of Manufacturing Michael Jussila said in a statement to WFPL News in August.
The pollution spread through groundwater and creeks reaching city-owned wetlands maintained under a conservation easement that protects endangered species like the Indiana bat and several species of freshwater mussels.
Project Scale and Downplaying Pollution
Project Scale was the code name for an aquaculture, food production company looking for an industrial site in Kentucky.
The company planned to bring 90 employees to the region and invest $102 million, but the project required clean groundwater, according to an overview.
Kentucky’s Cabinet for Economic Development reached out to Henderson about the project in May 2020 with plans to begin construction by the end of the year. The company settled on a site at the end of Borax Drive, beside the Ohio River and nearby Canoe Creek. But in December, plans collapsed.
“The company issued a FOIA request to the KY Department for Environmental Protection for water quality,” Henderson Economic Development Executive Director Missy Vanderpool wrote in an email to the city manager, mayor and other officials. “The results they received from that request caused us to be eliminated from this project.”
WFPL News couldn’t confirm the name of the company involved. States regularly provide confidentiality to businesses looking to invest in an area until they’ve reached an agreement.
A state environmental scientist said the groundwater could be polluted for generations. The company wanted no part of it.
When WFPL News interviewed city manager William “Buzzy” Newman this summer, he denied any knowledge of the city losing out on any business investment opportunity.
That’s not true,” he told WFPL News. “We’ve not had any serious interest in this property and it’s vacant property as we know it today.”
But WFPL obtained documents proving Newman knew the food production project fell through because of PFAS pollution. In fact, on the day the city learned it had lost the business, it was Newman himself who first suggested the pollution might have come from Shamrock Technologies.
“Shamrock may be the culprit due to recent testing in the area,” he wrote to the general manager of Henderson’s water utility.
Newman signed agreements allowing Shamrock to test city locations. He received a limited report from Shamrock officials indicating the pollution had migrated offsite and spoke with state officials about the pollution.
He didn’t warn residents about the pollution, or tell them about the economic development project that fell through because of it. But Newman did feel a responsibility to tell Shamrock a few weeks after the Project Scale deal collapsed:
“The City had a prospect for our industrial Park but at the 11th hour, they withdrew from consideration. Several of us wanted to know why and the State Economic Cabinet responded via a Zoom call. They indicated that the results from your testing raised a red flag internally that the potential for contamination and having a food industry were not a good mix,” he wrote in an email.
Shamrock’s representative, Jussila, replied: “That’s interesting. Thanks for the back story.”
Newman said he has no relationship with Shamrock Technologies, but in the fall of 2020 he used his government email address to try to purchase property he knew was contaminated from Shamrock Technologies.
“Mike, quick question on a personal side, Shamrock owns a building to the south of the plant on McKinley. It appears it has not been in use for quite some time, would Shamrock have interest in selling off just the building but not the land that is located behind the plant?” Newman wrote to Jussila of Shamrock in September, 2020.
Jussila said Shamrock had several inquiries on the property, but the company was unwilling to sell until after the environmental work was complete.
“Once this is completed, he may have a change of mind,” Jussila wrote back explaining the thoughts of company president William Neuberg. “If he changes his mind, I will let you know.”
Newman replied: “Thanks for sharing. The space that I had leased had the same type of environmental problems. I had to sign a waiver acknowledging that. Anyway, if it ever does, let me know. Thanks.”
That appears to violate the city’s ethics policy, which says city managers shouldn’t engage in any other business without the consent of the board of commissioners.
“Should I have done it on my private email? Probably so, but other than that, I’ve crossed paths with a lot of people everyday,” Newman said when asked about the request.
Health Impacts In Henderson
PFAS chemicals in drinking water pose the most well understood health risks including cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. Less is known about the risks of breathing in forever chemicals, but experts say it’s likely they pose a serious health threat.
The EPA recommends a lifetime exposure of no more than 70 particles of PFAS for every trillion particles of drinking water. In the European Union, it’s less than 1 part per trillion, and several states have already adopted more stringent standards than the EPA’s health advisory.
A new roadmap from the EPA outlines plans to explore the complete lifecycle of PFAS, how they move through the environment and how people might be exposed in its latest push to regulate the chemicals. The agency says it will hold polluters accountable and prioritize disadvantaged communities.
In Parkersburg, West Virginia, Cape Fear, North Carolina and other communities in the U.S., high levels of PFAS chemicals in drinking water have resulted in health problems, fines, lawsuits and hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements.
In Kentucky, PFAS was detected in half of all the public drinking water systems, according to a 2019 report from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. Most had PFAS levels under 5 parts per trillion.
In 2019, the Henderson Water Utility found PFAS compounds around 7 parts per trillion in its drinking water, said Kevin Roberts, Henderson Water Utility director of operations. Henderson began using activated carbon to help filter out the contaminants and has not had sustained issues with the chemicals, he said.
The EPA’s health advisory doesn’t apply to soil or water in creeks and lakes. But that doesn’t mean the pollution is safe. As long as these chemicals are in the environment, they pose a risk, and they are going to be there for a long time.
Take private wells, for example. The state has so far not detected levels above EPA advisory limits in a half-dozen wells nearby, but as long as PFAS chemicals are in the groundwater, they could affect them.
Shamrock’s consultants found PFAS chemicals in agricultural fields where they could end up in food that people eat. The levels in the soil around the three sites in Henderson also prove the chemicals are in the air residents breathe.
The health impacts of inhaling PFAS are the least understood. Preliminary studies have shown the chemicals impaired lung function in children and may be bad for your lungs, but experts in the field say there’s just not enough research on the subject.
It’s possible inhalation could be more dangerous than ingestion, said Linda Birnbaum, a scientist emeritus and the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. PFAS are sticky molecules that bind to proteins, which is why they’re so often found in blood, she said.
“If they get into the lungs they are going to stick to some of the proteins in the fluid in the lungs and then again they are going to go throughout your body rather than being pulled out by the liver or the kidneys,” Birnbaum said.
The U.S. has a storied history of allowing chemicals only to learn afterwards it was a very bad idea. The list includes leaded gasoline, asbestos and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
The so-called “precautionary principle” assumes chemicals are hazardous until proven otherwise, said DeWitt, the toxicologist with East Carolina University.
“We do the opposite here in the United States. We assume something is OK to use until we find out it’s hazardous and then we restrict or ban it,” she said.
DeWitt said she would be concerned about her health if she lived near one of the Shamrock facilities. Once the pollution is out in the world, consumers can only do so much to reduce their exposure, she said. They can keep their homes clean, buy water filters, make choices about the products they buy and vote.
“I would encourage people to write representatives and senators at the state and federal level to let them know that they want to see action taken on PFAS contamination in their communities,” DeWitt said.
Residents Left In The Dark
Dowdy, the local high school chemistry teacher, first heard the news from WFPL’s reporting on her local NPR station.
“I remember driving along and just kind of halfway paying attention and then my ears perked up and I was like, ‘Did they say Henderson’?” Dowdy told WFPL.
Robert Lachance lives just a couple blocks from one Shamrock facility in Henderson’s East End. He walks by it on the way to the grocery store. No one had ever told him about the pollution in the neighborhood, he said.
“That should be something that’s … reported to the area that it’s impacting,” Lachance said.
Many people in Henderson were unfamiliar with the chemicals and their impacts. Others like Green River District Public Health Director Clayton Horton, had “just a very basic awareness level,” in his words.
Others would rather not discuss the topic at all. Henderson’s state lawmakers did not return requests for comment. Even The Nature Conservancy declined requests to review the pollution data, instead sending a statement.
“As for activities or issues off-site that may impact the property, The Nature Conservancy is gathering information, but has nothing more to add at this time,” the statement read in part.
Even those who knew Shamrock tested for PFAS chemicals on or nearby their properties didn’t want to discuss the pollution.
A representative of St. Anthony’s Hospice declined to comment when asked about the levels found on its property. School officials for North Middle School didn’t return calls or emails.
But when Dowdy heard about the pollution, she started looking into it. With more than three decades under her belt as a chemistry teacher and a double major in chemistry and biology, she quickly realized the size of the problem.
“If you came into contact just a couple of times with contaminated soil or contaminated water, you could max out your lifetime exposure just in that case,” she said.
Dowdy said the people of Henderson need to learn what’s happening so they can find solutions and figure out what to do next.
City’s Response to PFAS Pollution In Henderson
City officials have consistently said they were unaware of the extent of the PFAS pollution. But they were aware the pollution was serious enough for a company to deem the city untenable for a major project.
And while city officials weren’t saying anything publicly, behind the scenes, they were communicating about testing and results.
Shamrock officials shared the city’s reluctance in communicating the extent of the pollution.
While the company provided the city with its preliminary findings showing off-site contamination around their facilities, the city says the company never shared the full report. Instead, WFPL News provided it to them.
Shamrock Technologies has taken steps to limit further pollution including removing leaking underground tanks, diverting contaminated sludge offsite and installing air filters on fans blowing out of its buildings, according to a statement from the Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet.
After months of downplaying the problem and suggesting it wasn’t the city’s responsibility to inform the public, the city has established a working group to better understand and explain the risks posed by PFAS chemicals. They’ve also hired an environmental consultant to review the extent of the pollution.
The city is also planning to spend as much as $8,750 per month on a public relations firm to handle crisis communications and better communicate with the public, according to an agreement with C2 Strategic Communications.
To date, the chemicals remain in the community and in the groundwater.
Later this week, in part two, WFPL News reports how the state’s Department for Environmental Protection failed to inform the public about the pollution in Henderson even as it privately warned the president of Shamrock Technologies groundwater resources could be damaged for “multiple millennia.”
Additional reporting was by Jasmine Snow of APM Reports, the investigative unit of American Public Media.
This story was produced as part of APM Reports’ public media accountability initiative, which supports investigative reporting at local media outlets around the country. Support also came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.