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Kentucky receives $22 million to address PFAS chemical contamination

The East End Bridge in eastern Jefferson County during an Ohio River sunset.
Ryan Van Velzer
The East End Bridge in eastern Jefferson County during an Ohio River sunset.

The same chemicals found in non-stick pans and fire-fighting foam have permeated the environment in Kentucky. These so-called “forever chemicals” have been found in lakes and rivers across the state, in fish, and in drinking water and are associated with adverse health impacts.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Kentucky will receive more than $22 million to manage forever chemicals and other emerging contaminants found in drinking water in rural and disadvantaged communities.

The funding comes from The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which invests $5 billion across the country over five years to help communities on the “frontlines” of the chemical contamination. Kentucky will be able to use the funds to improve water treatment systems and conduct water quality testing.

“Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right,” said Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in a press release. “We are thankful for the continued funding to improve our water infrastructure for all our families.”

Forever chemicals belong to a class of tens of thousands of compounds known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). They’ve received the moniker “forever chemicals” because their carbon-fluorine chains are among the strongest chemical bonds in nature. Once they’re in an ecosystem, they persist for an extremely long time.

The EPA says exposure to PFAS increases the risk of various cancers and organ damage. The chemicals can also suppress the immune system and interfere with the body's natural hormones.

A 2012 medical study of nearly 70,000 people in Parkersburg, W. Va., found exposure to one PFAS chemical likely contributed to birth defects, cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid, liver and kidney disease and high cholesterol.

Despite these risks, there are no federal or state laws regulating the chemicals in Kentucky.

The EPA said it would propose national drinking water standards for two of the most-studied chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, but has not done so yet. The agency did however, finalize a rule that will require water utilities around the country to begin monitoring for 29 PFAS chemicals beginning this year.

In the meantime, communities and utilities are not required to do anything about the forever chemicals in their drinking water, and there are no clear consequences for failing to inform residents about PFAS.

A Kentucky lawmaker has proposed legislation to set PFAS standards for drinking water in the state, but in previous years lawmakers never even discussed the legislation in committee.

“It’s not necessarily that they don’t care. I think that people just don’t see the urgency of it,” said Louisville Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni, the bill’s sponsor. “I mean maybe you’re at a greater risk for cancer but you’re not sick now, and this short-sightedness is really concerning."

Chemicals in Kentucky

For years, federal and state environmental officials said the levels of forever chemicals found in Kentucky drinking water were safe, but last year the EPA revised that risk saying even extremely low levels of the chemicals can present a health risk.

PFAS have already been found throughout the Ohio River, in every major Kentucky watershed, and in every fish sampled in lakes and streams across the state.

At least 38 drinking water systems in Kentucky, including Louisville, have demonstrated levels of forever chemicals the EPA now considers to have adverse health impacts, according to an LPM News analysis.

The state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet found the highest levels in South Shore, Ky. in 2019. Last year, an investigation from LPM News and The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found evidence South Shore officials failed to tell residents about the pollution in their drinking water, omitting key details in an emergency water declaration.

The city did not have any records of public notices sent to residents. City officials did not answer questions or return emails and phone calls answering whether they had ever informed residents.

In western Kentucky, a Teflon recycling company polluted Henderson with PFAS chemicals. The chemicals impacted a region where thousands of people work, learn and live.

This week, LPM News reached out to Republican and Democratic lawmakers from districts who have been heavily impacted by PFAS contamination, but none returned a request for comment.

Those lawmakers included Republican Rep. Jonathan Dixon of Corydon, Republican Sen. Robby Mills of Henderson, Republican Rep. Danny Bentley of Russell and Democratic Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson.

PFAS awareness advocate Teena Halbig, co-founder Floyds Fork Environmental Association, says neither the Energy and Environment Cabinet or Louisville Water Company has been on-board with Kulkarni’s legislation, but she thinks it would be a good idea.

“You never know when everything is going to be settled with the EPA,” Halbig said. “And [the bill] leaves it open so if there is more science or there are more changes, then we would revert to whatever the U.S. EPA says."

Despite the lack of movement at the state level, Halbig said she’s encouraged the federal government is taking action, drafting new regulations and providing funding to rural communities to clean up PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

“I’m like ‘hallelujah,’ it's long overdue,” she said.

The future of PFAS in Kentucky 

The Energy and Environment Cabinet did not return a request for comment for how the federal funds will be used to aid PFAS-contaminated communities in Kentucky.

Kulkarni, the Louisville Democrat, has filed legislation for the third time to set drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The measure requires the cabinet to establish maximum PFAS chemical limits monitoring requirements for the state’s water systems.

As of Thursday, the bill had not been assigned to a committee - the first step a bill takes on its way to becoming law. The last two times Kulkarni filed the legislation, the bill died without a hearing either.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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