Read the full article & listen to the story by Ryan Van Velzer (WFPL and APM Reports)

“In June 2020, Kentucky’s Department for Environmental Protection sent an inspector to investigate a Teflon recycling company in western Kentucky. 

The inspector was in Henderson to follow-up on a whistleblower complaint alleging Shamrock Technologies was pumping even higher levels of forever chemicals into the air than it had told state officials. 

At that point, the company had signed an agreement to identify and clean up pollution it generated from recycling Teflon materials to make micronized inks and powders. Forever chemicals, also known as PFAS, are a byproduct that’s been linked to cancers and organ damage. 

Inspector Jennifer Miller documented that she found Shamrock’s powders scattered across the concrete floors. She found more fine white powder by a dumpster outside and in a drainage ditch that runs alongside the facility. 

‘The facility has failed to take proper precautions to control a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant from being released into the environment,’ Miller wrote in the notice of violation

Four months later, state officials found forever chemicals in a creek that captures Shamrock’s runoff on its way to meet the Ohio River. Shamrock likely contributed to the pollution, state officials told WFPL News.

The state didn’t fine Shamrock for violating the agreement. Rather, environmental officials decided to issue permits allowing Shamrock Technologies to continue polluting the same creek. 

WFPL and APM Reports learned of the inspection and other state actions after reviewing thousands of pages of city, state and company records outlining Shamrock’s forever chemical pollution in Henderson. The investigation has found:

  • State officials hid from the public the extent of PFAS pollution in Henderson, failed to inform residents and businesses near heavily contaminated areas, and downplayed the pollution in statements to WFPL in August. While the public remained in the dark, state officials communicated privately with the company about PFAS levels and impacts.
  • Shamrock denied wrongdoing, used an attorney and consultant to push back on violations and tried to pressure state officials into allowing even more PFAS air pollution.
  • The Energy and Environment Cabinet initially denied to WFPL in August that Shamrock violated state wastewater standards. Documents obtained through records requests confirmed the company had received a notice of violation. State officials said the initial denial was an ‘oversight.’

State and local officials didn’t begin to inform the public about the widespread PFAS pollution in Henderson until WFPL News and APM Reports broke a series of stories beginning in August. We reported state officials found ‘very high and concerning‘ levels of PFAS at Shamrock’s facilities, then reported the company found the chemicals in nearly every sample taken in Henderson neighborhoods where thousands live, work and play. As a result of the groundwater pollution, Henderson lost a $100 million business opportunity.  

A Lack of Regulations

Despite the known health risks, there are no state or federal laws regulating PFAS compounds — a family of thousands of chemicals found in everyday products, prized for their durability and incredibly persistent both in the environment, and in people’s bodies.  

Without specific laws addressing PFAS chemicals, the state is trying to regulate an established public health hazard with one hand tied behind its back. 

Federally, PFAS chemicals haven’t been listed as hazardous waste. Still Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet is enforcing the 2019 agreement with Shamrock Technologies under the state’s superfund law for managing hazardous waste, which includes chemicals that pose a substantial hazard to human health or the environment. 

Shamrock accepted the terms of the agreement but continues to deny that PFAS are hazardous waste. The company also denies violating any law, regulation or permit, and, though it signed the agreement, does not see that as admission of “any of the factual assertions” contained within it.

The result is that the cabinet used its regulatory authority to characterize Shamrock’s pollution as hazardous waste while permitting the company to release these same chemicals through the air and water, even as officials privately expressed concern about the impacts. 

The state denied repeated interview requests for this story and others related to the pollution in Henderson. Instead, a spokesperson for the Energy and Environment Cabinet responded to a series of 30 written questions. 

Even though state officials were well aware of the extent of the pollution in Henderson, they said it wasn’t necessary to inform the public because state experts don’t think the concentrations pose a risk to human health. 

‘Instead, the cabinet determined that it was prudent to continue to protect the public by pursuing cleanup of the Shamrock sites and the elimination or reduction of releases to the environment,’ wrote Energy and Environment Spokesperson John Mura, in the statement.

PFAS, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to several types of cancer, liver, kidney and thyroid damage, inflammatory bowel disease, low birth weight and reduced vaccine effectiveness, among other health impacts.

Public health experts say chemicals in the PFAS family are a danger to public health. They also say state and federal officials failed the public by not adequately regulating the chemicals.

‘The government, whatever body it is, has to say this is a problem,’ said Linda Birnbaum, a scientist emeritus and the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. ‘And if you bury your head in the sand, you ignore that the problem exists.'”…