‘Forever chemicals’ contaminating Kentucky waters detailed for lawmakers

State’s efforts have focused on collecting data

By: - July 21, 2023 5:50 am

PFAS, often used in water-resistant gear, also find their way into drinking water and human bodies. (Getty Images)

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” are in Kentucky’s rivers and lakes. The chemicals are in municipal water treatment plants. They’re accumulating inside Kentucky’s fish

That is what the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection has found the past few years  as it has investigated how widespread PFAS is in Kentucky’s drinking water and environment, the department’s commissioner told state lawmakers Thursday. 

“We have gathered a lot of information. None of the information that we’ve gathered has been or ever was intended to be used for regulatory purposes,” said commissioner Tony Hatton.  “We’re looking at it primarily from a public health standpoint, and primarily from a drinking water aspect here in the commonwealth.” 

Chemicals classified as PFAS have been used for decades in a wide variety of industrial purposes, from firefighting foam to nonstick cooking ware because they are highly heat-resistant and stick-resistant. The resistance comes from their strong chemical bonds; they are dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in the environment

These chemicals also have a wide range of potential detrimental health impacts at high levels: increased risk of some cancers, hormonal changes, increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine responses in children and more. 

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet

Hatton said the Energy and Environment Cabinet has done its “investigative work” and  conducted the testing not only to be aware of how widespread PFAS was in state waters but to prepare for proposed federal regulations setting maximum limits on how much of some kinds of PFAS are allowed in drinking water. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently sets legal limits for over 90 contaminants in drinking water, but not for PFAS. The EPA has health advisory limits, which are unenforceable, that advise how much PFAS exposure is needed over a lifetime before adverse health effects occur. That limit is set at .004 parts per trillion (ppt) for one version of the chemical

There was no notice requirements, people. And that's a problem. I think we all have the right to be notified when we're dealing with the commodity that's necessary for life. This is a big deal.

– Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, on PFAS contamination of drinking water in South Shore

The legally enforceable maximum limit the EPA is proposing would cap two types of PFAS at 4 ppt. State officials have found much higher levels of PFAS in some municipal water systems in Kentucky. 

During the meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, noted that residents of South Shore in northeastern Kentucky were not notified by the city that their community’s water system had the highest level of PFAS contamination — 23.2 ppt for one type of the chemical — of all systems tested by state officials. Louisville Public Media broke the story of the small Greenup County city’s drinking water problems.

“There was no notice requirements, people. And that’s a problem. I think we all have the right to be notified when we’re dealing with the commodity that’s necessary for life,” Webb said. “This is a big deal.”

Treating water for PFAS is not cheap

Webb said the GOP-dominated legislature should consider providing more funding to water utilities when it considers a new state budget in next year’s session, especially with the pending federal limit on PFAS in drinking water. 

Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, asked Hatton if forever chemicals had been seen in fish caught in Kentucky waters; the commissioner replied that a state report found PFAS in all fish samples, 98 total, tested throughout the state. 

Past Democrat-led efforts to regulate PFAS through state legislation have gained little traction. Rep. Nima Kulkarni, D-Louisville, has been the primary sponsor of bills the past three years to set maximum limits in drinking water and discharge limits into state waters. A version of the legislation in 2023 was not assigned to a committee

Hatton said PFAS can be filtered out at water utilities, but treatment is expensive. He said the city of Leitchfield is asking the state for financial help to the tune of $1 million to implement a granular activated carbon filter. 

“The cool thing about carbon — it’s great stuff — but once the receptors get filled, it doesn’t want to hold on to anything anymore, you have to regenerate it or replace it. So there’s gonna be ongoing costs,” Hatton said. 

He said the state is focusing on how to treat drinking water systems for PFAS before addressing the other “complex” aspects of the issue, including the sources of forever chemicals. 

Sen. Cassie Chambers-Armstrong, D-Louisville, urged officials to also address potential sources of PFAS exposure, for example, in children’s products, in addition to focusing on  drinking water.

Kentucky earlier this year sued the chemical company DuPont de Nemours alleging PFAS pollution from a West Virginia facility upstream on the Ohio River has contaminated Kentucky’s natural resources. The state is demanding the company pay all past and future costs for monitoring and treating PFAS in drinking water.

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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.