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‘Forever chemicals:’ Now that feds have acted, some say Kentucky should do more

Fewer than 10 percent of more than 400 water utilities tested in Kentucky had PFAS at levels above the maximum limits set in the new federal rule, a state environmental official said.
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Kentucky Lantern
Fewer than 10 percent of more than 400 water utilities tested in Kentucky had PFAS at levels above the maximum limits set in the new federal rule, a state environmental official said.

FRANKFORT — Rep. Kevin Bratcher, a Louisville Republican, says he wants to be on the right side of history when it comes to the man-made “forever chemicals” that are in Kentucky’s waterways, fish and some Kentuckians’ drinking water.

He likens the widespread presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short, to lead poisoning. “How many years did it take before folks and the industry got their arms around that, killing so many people? I don’t want to look back and say, ‘You didn’t do anything for this,’ when it was obvious that some things are happening and there’s a lot of smart people concerned.”

Over the past three years, Bratcher has co-sponsored legislation filed by his Democratic colleague Rep. Nima Kulkarni, also of Louisville, aiming to raise awareness of and prevent exposure to the chemicals long used in products ranging from nonstick cooking ware to firefighting foam to food packaging. Those bills haven’t received committee hearings.

It’s been an uphill battle in the Kentucky legislature, where Bratcher says much of the challenge is getting his fellow lawmakers to understand the issue in the first place. Exposure to the toxic chemicals has abroad range of potential harmful health impacts: hormonal changes, increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine responses in children, increased risk of some cancers and more.

In 2019, the legislature did ban the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam for training purposes. And this year, lawmakers approved aresolution directing the Energy and Environment Cabinet to provide guidance about PFAS handling to entities discharging into wastewater treatment plants.

The federal government recently took steps that are expected to spur more state and local action. The Environmental Protection Agency finalized limits on the amount of PFAS allowed in drinking water. Environmentalists hailed the move, though some utility groups worry about the costs of removing contaminants being monitored at incredibly small levels. The EPA last week announced another new rule to hold industries discharging two types of PFAS legally and financially responsible for their cleanup.

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson John Mura in a statement on the finalized drinking water rule said the cabinet has been working with public water systems on “sampling, treatment options, community outreach and training to ensure safe drinking water.”

Rep. Nima Kulkarni
LRC Public Information
Rep. Nima Kulkarni

Mura said fewer than 10 percent of more than 400 water utilities tested in Kentucky had PFAS at levels above the maximum limits set in the new federal rule.

Kulkarni says Kentucky’s legislature should do more. And while she believes the federal regulations are a positive development, she pointed out that they set the maximum limits for PFAS in drinking water higher by multitudes than thelifetime health advisory limits released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2022.

“I don’t hail it as any kind of a huge step, but I mean it’s something,” Kulkarni said in reference to drinking water regulations for PFAS.. “Ideally, we come up with, obviously, technological devices or processes to test for PFAS at lower concentrations because there is no safe amount.”

Kulkarni was one of two Kentucky lawmakers, along with Rep. Al Gentry, D-Louisville, to sign onto aletter from 278 state lawmakers across the country supporting the federal drinking water regulations.

For one type of “forever chemical,” PFOA, the maximum exposure before a person might experience “adverse health effects” is .004 parts per trillion (ppt), according to the 2022 interim health advisories. The maximum limit allowed in drinking water for PFOA under new federal regulations is 4.0pt. For reference, 1 ppt isequivalent to one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Kulkarni argued state government could do more to identify the sources of PFAS in the state, tying PFAS regulations to health outcomes in communities instead of waiting for slower action from federal regulators tied to an arbitrary testing limit.

“Because people are exposed to PFAS, there’s a duty that we have to be as proactive as possible,” Kulkarni said. “If there isn’t a good solution out there, we should be looking for the best solution and not waiting for someone else to come up with it somewhere else. This is going to be addressed locally in any given state regardless of EPA levels.”

Testing and exposure

Tony Hatton
Tony Hatton

The commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection Tony Hattonaddressed lawmakers in a committee hearing in July 2023 about the PFAS testing his agency has done since 2019, saying the “investigative work” was done in part to prepare for the drinking water standards established by the EPA.

The state found all 98 fish samples collected from Kentucky lakes and riverstested positive for PFAS. One or more PFASwere detected in 83 of 194 water treatment plants; 36 of 40 monitoring stations testing surface watersdetected PFAS.

The Somerset city council last year voted tostop accepting landfill leachate — liquid created when rainwater filters through landfills containing chemicals and residuals from the waste — to be treated at its local wastewater treatment plant because of citizen concerns about PFAS in the landfill leachate. Republican Rep. Tom Smith asked Hatton in last year’s committee hearing about the Somerset situation before the committee.

Hatton responded the cabinet was focused on potential PFAS exposure in drinking water and that the “other parts of it are so complex they’re not going to be resolved very quickly.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isdeveloping new guidelines and standards for landfill leachate after a study found PFAS in 95% of leachate in surveyed landfills.

Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong, D-Louisville, also asked Hatton about other potential ways children can be exposed to PFAS, such asthrough waterproof clothing, and if there was a federal or state standard requiring consumers to be notified of PFAS in products. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PFAS exposure is possiblethrough a number of ways from consumer products, food and more.

Hatton said at the time the sources of PFAS into the environment would “probably be more heavily addressed” once “the regulatory basis” for PFAS is established.

Similar toother states, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinethas sued the chemical company DuPont de Nemours, consumer products company 3M and other companies over alleged PFAS pollution, alleging the companies are knowingly contaminating Kentucky’s natural resources.

Sen. Brandon Smith
LRC Public Information
Sen. Brandon Smith

Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, who brought Hatton before lawmakers last year and sponsored the resolution passed on PFAS this year, told the Lantern criticism from advocates that the state hasn’t done enough to address PFAS is fair. He hopes the issue “will have a lot of energy” in next year’s legislative session because it’s “going to absolutely have to be addressed.”

“More people than me will be talking about it, and people that know a lot more about it than me will be talking about it,” Smith said.

PFAS protection — at a cost

State environmental protection officials have worked with at least two utilities — the North Marshall Water District and theOhio River-bound city of Lewisport — on reducing high levels of PFAS found in their water systems.

PFAS contamination forced the shutdown of a water treatment plant supplying Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park last October. Roger Colburn, the general manager for the North Marshall Water District in Marshall County, told the Lantern he shut down a plant that had been treating groundwater after state testing found one of the operating water wells had nine types of “forever chemicals” present at nearly three times the federal maximum limit now established in drinking water.

Colburn said the chemicals are “probably the largest problem the drinking water industries had to address over the course of the last 30 or 40 years.”

Under the new regulations, drinking water utilities would have to notify their customers when PFAS levels exceeded the maximum limits and work to remove the chemicals through processes like reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon.

In a mid-Novemberpost on Facebook, the Marshall County water utility notified residents that it had taken the contaminated water well offline. Colburn said he thankfully hasn’t needed the water well yet to meet his utility’s water demand without a costly alternative. Other utilities haven’t been as lucky.

Public notification of PFAS contamination of drinking water became an issue in one northeastern Kentucky community. Asreported by Louisville Public Media, residents of the Greenup County city of South Shore weren’t notified by local officials about PFAS contamination in the city’s drinking water, the highest level of PFAS contamination found by state officials out of all systems tested in Kentucky. The city received amore than $8 million loan last year to build a water line to the city of Portsmouth, Ohio, across the Ohio River to replace the PFAS-contaminated water supply.

But the costs of removing PFAS contamination to below incredibly small limits worries groups including the Kentucky Rural Water Association, representing drinking water utilities across the state. Utility groups are concerned about the financial burden testing and treating PFAS will have on smaller utilities in particular. The Biden administration istouting billions of dollars available to help utilities with PFAS treatment, though KRWA leadership believe the long-term costs of the regulations, including ongoing testing, could still fall on Kentucky ratepayers.

But Teena Halbig, a retired microbiologist and community activist from Fern Creek who urged her state representative Bratcher to focus on PFAS, says the health costs created by PFAS ultimately will outweigh the cleanup costs.

“It’s hard for people to believe things that they really cannot see, and I can understand that,” Halbig said. “It’s going to cost everyone, but what is it costing you to go to the doctor for health appointments, for the quality of life that you have?”

Rep. Kevin Bratcher
LRC Public Information
Rep. Kevin Bratcher

Pushback from industries that profit from PFAS may also be a barrier to getting significant PFAS legislation passed, according to a lobbyist representing unionized firefighters.

Bratcher told the Lantern he was “visited by some companies” that had concerns when HB 116 was introduced. Industry representatives for the paint and coatings industry and the car manufacturer General Motors had lobbied on the bill along with groups representing environmentalists and scientists.

Jeff Taylor, the legislative director for Kentucky Professional Firefighters representing firefighter and EMS unions across Kentucky, told the Lantern he supports Kulkarni’s efforts because “anything that raises awareness, with respect to how dangerous this product is, is good for us.”

Taylor said firefighters’ main focus with PFAS is removing the substances from firefighting protective gearthat can break down in the heat, exposing firefighters to the man-made chemicals. He said he knew firefighters who had served for decades, only to die from cancer connected to their line of work.

“You can understand why we’re passionate about these issues,” Taylor said.

But the challenge with making legislative change on PFAS, he said, comes down to facing off against corporate interests that have a stake in using PFAS and profiting from it.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask the politicians that are making laws that you provide some type of consumer awareness as to what this product is and what it’s in,” Taylor said.

This story was originally published by the Kentucky Lantern.

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.
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