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Kentucky sues ‘forever chemical’ manufacturers for polluting natural resources

A view of the Grant Bridge in South Shore, Kentucky over water, with green trees in view on either side of the bridge.
Ryan Van Velzer
In June, the city of South Shore established a temporary water line across the U.S. Grant Bridge from the neighboring city of Portsmouth, Ohio, to address PFAS contamination in the city's drinking water.

Kentucky is suing manufacturers of ‘forever chemicals’ for contaminating the state’s natural resources.

A 2012 medical study of nearly 70,000 people in Parkersburg, West Virginia, found exposure to one particular forever chemical known as PFOA likely contributed to a range of health problems including birth defects, cancer, and liver and kidney disease.

Now, attorneys in Kentucky allege forever chemicals from the same DuPont Washington Works Plant that polluted the West Virginia town depicted in the movie “Dark Waters” have also polluted the commonwealth.

“For years, the DuPont Company knowingly discharged per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the Ohio River from its plant in West Virginia, all to the detriment of public water systems that use the Ohio River as a source and to Kentuckians who use the Ohio River for recreation,” said Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet (EEC) spokesperson John Mura in an emailed statement. “Team Kentucky is committed to ensuring that every Kentuckian has clean water with which to drink and recreate.”

Attorneys with the personal injury law firm Hendy Johnson Vaugn Emery filed suit Friday on behalf of the state and the EEC.

Ordinarily, the attorney general is responsible for attending to legal business where the state has an interest. It’s unclear then why the EEC hired outside counsel to sue on behalf of the state. The EEC and the attorney general’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

They’re suing two companies associated with the manufacturing and releasing of the forever chemicals that pervade Kentucky’s waters.

These forever chemicals belong to a family of compounds known as PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. The strong chemical bonds that make these chemicals ideal for waterproofing and stain resistance in clothing, firefighting foam, carpeting and cosmetics also make them incredibly resistant to natural decay.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has been researching the chemicals’ impacts on Kentucky for more than five years. They’ve found PFAS in 90% of rivers and lakes they sampled, in every fish they tested and in nearly half of the drinking water systems they tested in 2019.

Just two weeks ago, the state announced it would conduct a second round of testing for the chemicals in drinking water as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposes new drinking water standards to protect against six PFAS chemicals.

At least 17 other states around the country have also sued PFAS manufacturers. Attorneys are asking for a judgment to cover the costs of damages and cleanup, which could be very expensive, if it covers the costs to the state’s water systems.

Contamination in the Ohio Valley

The lawsuit names two defendants: The Chemours Company and E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Company.

DuPont’s Washington Works Plant first began manufacturing forever chemicals for Teflon-related products in 1951. One industry risk assessor estimated DuPont released more than 600,000 pounds of PFOA into the Ohio River outside Parkersburg.

Although DuPont de Nemours was named in the suit, a spokesperson for the company alleges it has never manufactured PFOA or PFOS. That’s because DuPont spun off its “performance chemicals” business and associated environmental liabilities to the Chemours Company in 2015, according to the lawsuit.

“While we don’t comment on litigation matters, we believe these complaints are without merit, and we look forward to vigorously defending our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship,” said DuPont spokesperson Dan Turner.

Mura with the EEC noted DuPont restructured their company, and they put their liabilities in a subsidiary that “would not be able to pay for the contamination they created.”

Chemours did not immediately return a request for comment.

When Kentucky conducted drinking water sampling in 2019, PFOA was detected in 24 samples while another chemical, PFOS, was found in 33 samples, according to the lawsuit. Together, those systems served drinking water to around 1.7 million people.

That 2019 study found the highest levels of contamination in Greenup County, Kentucky. Last year, a Louisville Public Media investigation found evidence officials in a small town called South Shore failed to tell residents about the pollution in their drinking water for years, omitting key details in an emergency water declaration.

Last August, the city sued 3M — the only manufacturer of PFOS in the U.S. — DuPont and its subsidiaries in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina for the pollution in South Shore’s drinking water. South Shore’s lawsuit is one of around 500 similar cases from local governments suing PFAS manufacturers for contaminating groundwater.

Health risks

The EPA has found that two of the most well-researched chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, are likely to cause kidney and liver cancer. The agency says there are no safe levels of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water, but are instead proposing drinking water standards at the lowest detectable threshold, four parts per trillion.

However, health experts emphasize that just because these chemicals are common doesn’t mean that everyone will see the worst, if any, poor health outcomes.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that PFAS blood levels have significantly declined since 2002 alongside a decline in the production and use of PFOS and PFOA.

Despite the known health risks, there are no state or federal laws regulating PFAS.

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

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