High levels of PFAS chemicals have contaminated a plastics recycling company in Henderson, Kentucky, spreading through the air and water and likely contaminating a creek that flows into the Ohio River, state officials say.
The company, Shamrock Technologies Inc., notified state regulators about the problem after hiring a consultant to screen for the pollution three years ago.
State records obtained by WFPL News through a records request show the extent of the pollution at the site, where PFAS levels rival those found at EPA Superfund sites on military installations across the country, but get far less attention.
State officials are still trying to gauge the extent of the pollution offsite. As recently as last year, scientists discovered PFAS chemicals outside of Shamrock’s facilities, in the soil and groundwater nearby, as well as in a creek that flows into the Ohio River, a drinking water source for millions of people.
The existence of the so-called “forever chemicals” in other communities has led to billions spent on cleanup costs, personal injury litigation and environmental monitoring. To date, state testing has not found PFAS levels above federal standards in Henderson’s drinking water or at private wells near Shamrock facilities.
The consulting firm hired by Shamrock found the pollution in nearly every sample they gathered and noted concerns the pollution could migrate offsite, records show.
Per- & Poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of contaminants known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in nature. The acronym describes a family of thousands of compounds used in a diverse range of products including non-stick pans, fire fighting foam, waterproof coatings and fast food wrappers.
Ingestion of the chemicals is linked to birth defects, kidney and testicular cancer, as well as damage to the liver, immune system and thyroid, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Despite the known risks, neither the federal government nor Kentucky has established regulatory limits on the use of PFAS compounds. The EPA has however set a lifetime advisory limit for its presence in drinking water.
Since 2018, Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, or EEC, has worked with Shamrock to learn the scope of the pollution and begin cleanup of what it calls “very high and concerning” levels of PFAS found at Shamrock’s facilities.
Even without specific regulations for PFAS compounds, the cabinet can force Shamrock Technologies to remove hazardous pollution and pay for the cleanup costs under the state’s superfund law. Though no violations have yet been issued, Shamrock is now working under an agreed order with the state to test and clean up the pollution.
“The cabinet is working quickly, with the protection of the public’s health and safety guiding its actions,” said EEC spokesperson John Mura in an emailed statement. “It will take whatever long-term regulatory steps are necessary to protect the integrity of the immediate environment and the health of nearby residents.”
Both the cabinet and Shamrock Technologies declined interview requests for this story.
Shamrock manufacturing director Michael Jussila provided an emailed statement saying the company self-reported its finding to the state and has worked closely with officials since then.
“Shamrock’s commitment, close cooperation, and adherence to the terms of the order continue on these and other corrective measures going forward,” Jussila said.
Shamrock Technologies is an industrial producer of micronized powders and waxes for things like printing inks and coatings. From the original plant in New Jersey, the company expanded to industrial facilities in Kentucky, Belgium and China, according to a YouTube video.
In the late 1970s, the company began recycling plastics for their products. The plastics can include PFAS contaminants that companies including 3M and DuPont have voluntarily discontinued because of their health impacts, according to the EPA.
Shamrock hired ERM Consulting & Engineering, Inc, to test the three sites in Henderson looking for contamination. They discovered PFAS compounds across all three sites, in the soil nearby, in the drainage areas where stormwater runs off into a tributary of the Ohio River, and in the groundwater around the region, records show.
The EPA recommends a lifetime exposure of no more than 70 particles of PFAS for every trillion particles of drinking water, though several states including Vermont and California have adopted significantly lower limits. These limits don’t apply to soils, surface or groundwater, but they do demonstrate how little needs to be ingested to potentially cause harm.
The highest levels found in the groundwater at Shamrock reached 345,000,000 parts per trillion — and that was just for one compound, according to a Dec. 2019 site report. The consultants identified 11 predominant PFAS compounds spread across the three sites.
The advocacy-oriented nonprofit Environmental Working Group has researched PFAS for decades. Senior scientist David Andrews said the levels found at Shamrock Technologies are on par with some of the most contaminated sites EWG has encountered.
“Those concentrations are incredibly high. There should be assurances that it’s being cleaned up and that PFAS doesn’t impact drinking water wells and lead to any offsite contamination as much as possible,” Andrews said.
PFAS In The Air
The worst levels onsite came from PFAS compounds that would have been emitted into the air through smokestacks, but were inadvertently caught by a device designed to remove a different chemical.
The devices, known as wet scrubbers, are designed to remove hydrogen fluoride, but incidentally trapped PFAS compounds in water that Shamrock had been storing in underground tanks, according to a tank closure plan.
The Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection (DEP) asked Shamrock to remove the tanks as soon as possible, which they did in 2019. The company has redirected the scrubber sludge and is shipping it offsite for disposal.
To further minimize pollution, Shamrock has installed filters on fans that blow air outside its buildings. The state is also ordering the company to evaluate air emissions and install filters to remove the particles from the air, Mura said.
“Earlier this year, the DEP directed that more testing be done to determine any off-site impact. Shamrock is developing a work plan to do that,” Mura wrote in a statement.
Both the state and the consultants identified the air dispersion of PFAS compounds as a potential concern, but it’s unclear the extent that air emissions have spread across the community and whether or not they’ve adversely affected human health.
The foremost attorney on the subject of PFAS contamination said air emissions should be a major consideration in understanding the extent of PFAS pollution.
Rob Bilott has spent the last two decades representing clients exposed to PFAS pollution and has secured more than $1 billion in compensation for people who’ve been adversely affected. Among them were residents who lived near a DuPont plant that manufactured a PFAS compound in West Virginia.
“In fact, some of the highest concentrations outside that manufacturing facility were in areas that were being impacted by those air emissions,” Bilott said.
PFAS In The Creek
Canoe Creek winds its way through the city of Henderson. It’s the kind of narrow urban stream that catches the occasional liberated grocery cart, flowing past industrial sites and corn fields as it makes its way to its confluence with the Ohio River.
City officials say it’s not the kind of creek one might actually dip a canoe in, though it’s possible that some residents might still fish in it.
The creek serves as the watershed for all three Shamrock facilities and captures the stormwater that flows offsite. It could be impacted by air and groundwater pollution, according to ERM reports.
The state tested the creek in 2020 and found high concentrations of PFAS.
“It is likely that Shamrock’s releases have contributed to the PFAS in the creek,” Mura said.
The city of Henderson does get its drinking water from the Ohio River, but the intake is upstream from Canoe Creek. In 2019, the Henderson Water Utility recorded PFAS compounds in its drinking water at low amounts, around 7 ppt, but Kevin Roberts, Henderson Water Utility director of operations, told WFPL News it’s unlikely that contamination came from Shamrock.
Still, because of those levels, Henderson has since begun using activated carbon to reduce the amount of PFAS found in the drinking water, Roberts said.
The state also tested Henderson’s drinking water, as well as six private wells within a mile of the Shamrock facilities and found results below the EPA’s health advisory of 70 ppt, said Mura with the Energy and Environment Cabinet.
“During this process, the cabinet informed nearby well owners, state and Henderson city officials and the regional EPA office about the PFAS release,” Mura said.
But Henderson isn’t the only city that takes its drinking water from the Ohio River.
The Ohio River serves as both a drinking source for millions, and a dumping ground for cities and industry discharging wastewater. As a result, PFAS chemicals have been found in small amounts in drinking water systems up and down the Ohio, including in Louisville.
Three cities downstream from where Canoe Creek meets the Ohio River tested positive for the same PFAS contaminants found onsite at Shamrock Technologies, though state records don’t indicate the source and the amounts found were below EPA’s health advisory levels.
Still, advocates are worried about the pollution. Any amount of PFAS chemicals that make their way into the river or the soil will be there forever and create a potential hazard to drinking water for generations to come, said Andrews with the Environmental Working Group.
“It’s still adding to the burden of PFAS contamination for all those communities downstream that are pulling their drinking water from the Ohio,” Andrews said.
Contamination In Henderson
City officials in Henderson say they’ve been in the loop on the testing and results but not on the implications for residents.
Henderson City Manager Buzzy Newman says he’s worked closely with the state and the plastics recycler, but no one has told him about the gravity of the chemicals’ impacts on human health and the environment.
“They showed us the levels and to be frank with you, again, I only know what I can see on paper,” Newman said. “To be frank with you, I don’t know what the impact truly means.”
The city of Henderson agreed in 2020 to allow Shamrock’s consultants to test city property for the presence of the pollution.
The tests showed high levels of PFAS compounds in the groundwater on city property nearby Shamrock. The compounds were also present in soil samples.
Newman, the city manager, said he saw the tests for city property and never discussed potential impacts on residents with state officials or Shamrock.
“We did not discuss the overall area impact,” he said. “As was explained to me by state officials, we’re still trying to wrap our arms around this and how to deal with it.”
After hearing about the potential harm caused by PFAS contamination, Newman said:
“From the city’s perspective, and realize I represent the city, the educational process must continue. We must continue to ask questions of regulatory authorities.”
What Happens Next
While the Department for Environmental Protection has directed Shamrock to clean up the highest levels of pollution and asked them to manage further impacts, much of the pollution on- and offsite remains.
The state has not issued Shamrock any violations and has not yet made a decision to issue fines, but Mura said that when the full extent of the pollution is understood, more will be done.
“There will be further cleanup after a careful search for and characterization of all Per- & Poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) releases at Shamrock Technologies properties and any and all PFAS that migrated offsite. This will be followed, as is customary in large-scale cleanups, with the development of a Corrective Action Plan,” Mura said.
In the meantime, the state said it’s still awaiting guidance from the EPA on how to properly regulate PFAS compounds.
Bilott, the attorney, said his first letter asking the EPA to regulate PFAS compounds was more than 20 years ago. As a Kentucky resident, Bilott said he’s also advocated for the state to look very seriously at the chemicals, particularly along the Ohio River.
“The state ought to be taking a close look in doing what it can to make sure these impacts are minimized, that exposures are addressed,” Bilott said. “There’s pretty much scientific consensus that these are chemicals that we don’t want in our water, we don’t want them in our blood.”
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.