PFAS pollution could last millennia. Kentucky officials told the polluter, but not residents
In June 2020, Kentucky’s Department for Environmental Protection sent an inspector to investigate a Teflon recycling company in western Kentucky.
The inspector was in Henderson to follow-up on a whistleblower complaint alleging Shamrock Technologies was pumping even higher levels of forever chemicals into the air than it had told state officials.
At that point, the company had signed an agreement to identify and clean up pollution it generated from recycling Teflon materials to make micronized inks and powders. Forever chemicals, also known as PFAS, are a byproduct that’s been linked to cancers and organ damage.
Inspector Jennifer Miller documented that she found Shamrock’s powders scattered across the concrete floors. She found more fine white powder by a dumpster outside and in a drainage ditch that runs alongside the facility.
“The facility has failed to take proper precautions to control a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant from being released into the environment,” Miller wrote in the notice of violation.
Four months later, state officials found forever chemicals in a creek that captures Shamrock’s runoff on its way to meet the Ohio River. Shamrock likely contributed to the pollution, state officials told WFPL News.
The state didn’t fine Shamrock for violating the agreement. Rather, environmental officials decided to issue permits allowing Shamrock Technologies to continue polluting the same creek.
WFPL and APM Reports learned of the inspection and other state actions after reviewing thousands of pages of city, state and company records outlining Shamrock’s forever chemical pollution in Henderson. The investigation has found:
State and local officials didn’t begin to inform the public about the widespread PFAS pollution in Henderson until WFPL News and APM Reports broke a series of stories beginning in August. We reported state officials found “very high and concerning” levels of PFAS at Shamrock’s facilities, then reported the company found the chemicals in nearly every sample taken in Henderson neighborhoods where thousands live, work and play. As a result of the groundwater pollution, Henderson lost a $100 million business opportunity.
A Lack of Regulations
Despite the known health risks, there are no state or federal laws regulating PFAS compounds — a family of thousands of chemicals found in everyday products, prized for their durability and incredibly persistent both in the environment, and in people’s bodies.
Without specific laws addressing PFAS chemicals, the state is trying to regulate an established public health hazard with one hand tied behind its back.
Federally, PFAS chemicals haven’t been listed as hazardous waste. Still Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet is enforcing the 2019 agreement with Shamrock Technologies under the state’s superfund law for managing hazardous waste, which includes chemicals that pose a substantial hazard to human health or the environment.
Shamrock accepted the terms of the agreement but continues to deny that PFAS are hazardous waste. The company also denies violating any law, regulation or permit, and, though it signed the agreement, does not see that as admission of “any of the factual assertions” contained within it.
A conceptual model of PFAS exposure pathways included in Shamrock Technologies’ 2020 offsite characterization report.
Credit Shamrock Technologies
The result is that the cabinet used its regulatory authority to characterize Shamrock’s pollution as hazardous waste while permitting the company to release these same chemicals through the air and water, even as officials privately expressed concern about the impacts.
The state denied repeated interview requests for this story and others related to the pollution in Henderson. Instead, a spokesperson for the Energy and Environment Cabinet responded to a series of 30 written questions.
Even though state officials were well aware of the extent of the pollution in Henderson, they said it wasn’t necessary to inform the public because state experts don’t think the concentrations pose a risk to human health.
“Instead, the cabinet determined that it was prudent to continue to protect the public by pursuing cleanup of the Shamrock sites and the elimination or reduction of releases to the environment,” wrote Energy and Environment Spokesperson John Mura, in the statement.
PFAS, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to several types of cancer, liver, kidney and thyroid damage, inflammatory bowel disease, low birth weight and reduced vaccine effectiveness, among other health impacts.
Public health experts say chemicals in the PFAS family are a danger to public health. They also say state and federal officials failed the public by not adequately regulating the chemicals.
“The government, whatever body it is, has to say this is a problem,” said Linda Birnbaum, a scientist emeritus and the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “And if you bury your head in the sand, you ignore that the problem exists.”
Dumping Forever Chemicals Into A Ditch
Between 2014 and 2018, Shamrock Technologies released contaminated water from 1,500 gallon tanks holding incredibly high levels of forever chemicals into a ditch in front of a facility in Henderson, state records show. The company had no permits to do it, according to the agreement.
The resulting pollution found in the groundwater underneath the site exceeded federal health advisory levels by nearly 5,000,000 times the standard — rivaling contamination found at EPA Superfund sites on military installations across the country, company records show.
Shamrock voluntarily disclosed the pollution to Kentucky’s Department for Environmental Protection in 2018.
After the company notified the state, officials acted swiftly to test Henderson’s drinking water supply including a half-dozen private wells located in roughly a mile radius around Shamrock’s facilities in early 2019. They also notified Henderson city officials.
Henderson pulls its drinking water from the Ohio River so despite the dramatic levels of pollution underneath the site, the state found relatively low levels of PFAS in Henderson’s tap water in February 2019 — safe by the EPA’s standard for drinking water. Similarly, they found one private well that had detectable levels of PFAS. Officials didn’t consider either a health risk, state records show.
Even so, the city’s water utility began taking measures to filter out PFAS chemicals in 2019.
At the direction of the Department for Environmental Protection, Shamrock removed the underground tanks that had previously stored extremely high levels of PFAS by May 2019. Afterwards, Shamrock began removing the PFAS-contaminated water from the site, rather than dumping it into the ditch. The company also installed air filters, dust containment measures and vacuums to reduce PFAS sources, state records show.
In addition to renovating the facility, the company also brokered a deal with the state to determine the extent of the pollution and then clean it up. Shamrock Technologies President William B. Neuberg signed the Agreed Order with Kentucky’s Department for Environmental Protection in October 2019.
Then, in December, state environmental scientist Larry Hughes wrote a letter to Neuberg warning his company’s pollution had the potential to affect Henderson for generations to come. He explained the mass of chemicals exceeded any “conceivable clean-up level published to date or in the near future” and will remain a significant source of groundwater contamination threatening the Ohio River aquifer.
“This will potentially render the groundwater resources significantly impacted for multiple millenia,” Hughes wrote.
Polluting in a Pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic first swept across the country causing many industries to shut down, executives at Shamrock’s facilities in Henderson were looking to ramp up production. In April, 2020, the company’s New Jersey facility was shuttered due to COVID-19, according to a voicemail from Shamrock’s director of manufacturing. Company executives wanted Shamrock’s Kentucky facilities to fill the demand. They asked for a meeting with state regulators to lobby for the green light to increase air emissions.
“He let me know that they are running ‘tight’ on product and are considered an ‘essential’ operation due to supplying their product to ink/printing industries,” Kentucky Division of Air Quality Director Melissa Duff wrote to her colleagues about the call.
Shamrock’s consultants and an attorney urged state officials to approve the permit. In an email, state environmental attorney Mary Ann Lee told her colleagues that Shamrock was using its agreement with the state as leverage to further increase PFAS emissions.
“They’ve filed an application to increase their air emissions with [Division of Air Quality] and are relying on the Agreed Order to argue that they should be able to increase. The longer that they can draw out the deadlines under the Agreed Order, the more pressure they can put on [the Division of Air Quality] to grant the increase application,” wrote Lee.
As the state was dealing with Shamrock’s permit request, it was also investigating a whistleblower complaint from a former employee who said the company was allowing additional PFAS emissions to escape through Shamrock’s stacks, according to state records.
The Division of Air Quality looked into the complaint and didn’t find any permit violations for air emissions, but they also sent a Division of Water inspector to the site in June 2020, according to an emailed statement from Mura.
That’s when Miller found the white powder inside and outside a Shamrock facility in Henderson.
Miller determined Shamrock Technologies had violated best management practices and had failed to apply for the necessary storm and industrial discharge permits with the state, according to state records.
She issued a notice of violation in September 2020. But Shamrock Technologies pushed back on the inspector’s findings. An attorney from the law firm Dinsmore & Shohl countered every claim in the notice of violation in a letter to the state.
Attorney Carolyn Brown argued the white residue outside the facility actually came from the gravel parking lot and disagreed with the notion Shamrock had failed to properly manage a hazardous substance, emails show.
“PFAS are a class of emerging contaminants for which there are no Kentucky or federal regulators standards,” Brown wrote.
The company felt the disputes were covered by its agreement with the state.
“The Agreed Order settles ‘all civil claims and controversies involving alleged violations and deficiencies’,” she wrote.
Shamrock’s attorney was pushing back on the violations after the state found more PFAS chemicals in Canoe Creek, a narrow urban stream that flows past neighborhoods, corn fields and industrial sites including Shamrock on its way to the Ohio River. The levels exceeded the EPA’s lifetime health advisory limits for drinking water.
The Energy and Environment Cabinet told WFPL News that Shamrock’s pollution had likely contributed to the contamination.
Nonetheless, in December, the cabinet issued Shamrock Technologies a permit allowing the company to legally pollute Canoe Creek.
Pollution Offsite and In The Community
Just three days before Shamrock Technologies received the permit in December 2020, the company reported the results of another round of PFAS testing.
Shamrock’s consultants tested land as far as 10 football fields around its three facilities in Henderson. They found forever chemicals in nearly every sample they took: near schools, health care centers, restaurants and homes, company records show.
Those who live nearby the facilities are two to three times as likely to be people of color than in the rest of the county and 60% are low income, according to an EPA database.
Shamrock’s findings alarmed some scientists.
The plumes of groundwater pollution from Shamrock Technologies exceeded a half mile in some places, seeping into wetlands home to endangered species. Two Shamrock sites are less than 1,500 feet from the Ohio River, according to an analysis by state environmental scientist Larry Hughes.
Hughes also noted that Shamrock’s consultants found PFAS pollution on rooftops, in tree canopies, in soils, waterways and in aerial emissions around Shamrock’s three facilities. Hughes wrote the water pollution was the greatest health risk to the area.
When and if the forever chemicals reach the aquifer for the Ohio River, “a much greater impact to viable potential drinking and economic groundwater resources exists (presently) or will exist (in the future,)” Hughes wrote to an executive at Shamrock.
Regulating Hazardous Waste
The push and pull over PFAS pollution in Henderson happened largely without the public’s knowledge or input. That changed when WFPL News first reported about Shamrock’s PFAS pollution in August.
The Beshear administration declined interview requests for the stories, and when WFPL News asked about the pollution in the community around Henderson in August, the Energy and Environment Cabinet downplayed the truth.
“While further testing of groundwater under the company’s facilities showed very high levels of PFAS in the shallow aquifer, the [Department for Environmental Protection] does not believe that those same levels have migrated offsite,” according to the statement.
While technically true, the statement was also deceptive. The levels of PFAS chemicals in the aquifer still reached levels more than 200 times the EPA’s lifetime health advisory, and ignored the impacts of the PFAS chemicals in the air.
State officials now acknowledge that Shamrock has polluted the community, but told WFPL News that it did not feel it was necessary to warn residents because their own modeling suggests that the PFAS concentrations present in the soils, water and air didn’t exceed “target risk levels to human health.”
“The cabinet exercises the best judgment of its professionals in determining when to proactively notify residents, the public, and when to take emergency or immediate action,” Mura wrote in the statement.
Public health experts say otherwise. Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, says the chemicals present a health risk to the public. She said the state should be doing more to prevent Shamrock and other companies from emitting PFAS and other related chemicals into the air.
“You don’t want that to be happening. You don’t want it coming out of the stack. That is definitely not something that should be permitted or allowed,” Birnbaum said.
The Energy and Environment Cabinet has never calculated the total mass of Shamrock’s PFAS chemicals emitted from its stacks, though the emissions have been permitted since 2010, emails show.
“Since PFAS is not a substance regulated by EPA, those emissions were not provided or reviewed prior to issuing Shamrock’s current air permit,” Mura with the EEC wrote.
The cabinet started taking steps to increase oversight of forever chemicals in Kentucky. It’s already published two studies looking at PFAS contamination across the state and is developing the ability to study the chemicals in fish tissues.
Since WFPL started reporting on the pollution, the cabinet has also announced plans to comprehensively look at industrial facilities across the state where forever chemicals might be used or produced.
In October, the cabinet denied Shamrock’s permit application that would have resulted in increased PFAS emissions, records show.
And Department for Environmental Protection Commissioner Tony Hatton said PFAS air emissions should probably be considered a hazardous air pollutant.
“That’s something that probably needs to happen so that we can get a better handle on increasing controls and emissions of PFAS into the environment,” Hatton said about the risks posed by forever chemicals during a state conference in October.
But the cabinet didn’t take a stance on legislation that would establish maximum contaminant levels for PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
The bill would have been Kentucky’s first and only step toward addressing forever chemicals, said it’s chief backer, state Rep. Nima Kulkarni, a Democrat from Louisville.
“Ultimately, it’s something that is killing human beings through a variety of cancers,” Kulkarni said. “And so the impact of this is really astounding, and very overwhelming if you kind of look at the long term impact, the generational impact that it has on our health and our community’s health.”
The bill never even got a hearing.
Nearly three years after Shamrock Technologies first acknowledged its pollution, the company and state are still trying to figure out how far the pollution has spread and in what concentrations.
Shamrock did not return requests for an interview, but a company official said in a written statement in August that it plans to address all potential health risks and environmental impacts from its sites in Henderson.
“Shamrock has been working closely with the Commissioner’s office in the characterization and extent of the contamination as part of the Agreed Order including any remediation necessary to address, contain, or remove it,” wrote Michael Jussila, Shamrock’s director of manufacturing in Henderson.
To date, Shamrock Technologies has not paid any fines or faced legal action. Cabinet officials said it’s faster to work with companies than sue them.
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.