Story by Brad Bowman
Organic chemist Keith Ewing remembers the aftermath of the Martin County coal slurry spill in October 2000. The collapse of a coal slurry impoundment sent 250 million gallons of sludge into nearby waterways, an incident the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called one of the worst environmental disasters in the southeastern United States.
For about three weeks, Ewing and his Department for Environmental Protection (DEP) colleagues worked into the weekends at the Frankfort Centralized Laboratory preparing water and coal slurry samples gathered from Coldwater Creek, Wolf Creek and the Tug Fork and Big Sandy rivers, where the heavy metal-laden sludge was reported as deep as six feet.
“Working in this lab, you tend to get stuck doing the same thing day in and day out and when something like this occurs it tends to give you a heightened sense of interest,” Ewing said. “It’s rewarding in the sense that you are helping the citizens of Kentucky and you are making sure that the water is indeed safe to drink and/or recreate in.”
Ewing and his colleagues with the DEP’s Division of Environmental Program Support — and the laboratory facility they work in — have continued to play a vital role in Kentucky’s environmental health. A team of up to 35 scientists work testing drinking water, ambient water, wastewater, sediments and soils, fish, chemicals and waste.
Last summer, they were called on to analyze water samples after about 40,000 Jim Beam bourbon barrels caught fire in a Frankfort warehouse and dumped their contents into a nearby creek, ultimately killing thousands of fish in the Kentucky River.
Every day, it’s where the DEPS team determines the composition of pollution in Kentucky.
Tony Hatton, commissioner of the Department For Environmental Protection, said the lab has been instrumental in protecting the state’s residents and its natural resources.
“Having our own lab has proven time and again that we have the means to be innovative, informative and play a crucial role in protecting our Commonwealth and its citizens,” Hatton said.
A Unique Asset
The state has operated a lab since 1982, according to DEPS Assistant Director Michael Goss, who oversees the lab. The original Division of Environmental Services, a precursor to DEPS, was created to provide centralized laboratory services to support the environmental monitoring activities of the DEP.
The building, the first to be constructed on Sower Boulevard, houses the labs for other agencies as well: the forensic lab for Kentucky State Police, the Cabinet for the Health and Family Services lab where COVID-19 samples are tested, the Department of Public Health’s labs and the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet’s medical examiner’s lab for autopsies.
Kentucky is one of only two states in the U.S. EPA’s Southeast Region that has attained accreditation from the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program, or NELAP, a nationally known environmental laboratory certification program, Goss said.
“If a lab wants others to have confidence in their ability to report quality work, then it really needs to be accredited by an outside, independent group,” Goss said.
In order to be certified by NELAP, a program formed through extensive cooperation and leadership of the U.S. EPA, a lab must adhere to stringent and robust validation processes. Goss said certification for the DEPS lab came after years of preparation in writing a Laboratory Operations Quality Assurance Manual, almost 200 method standard operating procedures and over 50 administrative procedures to meet the accrediting authority’s specific criteria.
“NELAP is a very well-known accreditation group that prides themselves on doing a very thorough job in weeding out the bad labs from the good lab,” Goss said. “By following their guidelines and maintaining accreditation for over 13 years, DEPS has, in my opinion, cemented a reputation that is of a very high quality. NELAP doesn’t allow us the luxury of becoming lazy.”
Without the state lab, collected water samples like harmful algal blooms from Kentucky waterways or samples collected for the statewide, 2019 drinking water study would have to be sent out of state for analysis, Hatton said, which would be “cost prohibitive and waste precious taxpayer resources.”
“The ability to test samples at our own state facility with our own skilled personnel has put us in the best position to serve and protect our fellow Kentuckians,” Hatton said.
Innovation and Expansion
Over the years, DEPS scientists have had to adapt to changes in pollution and federal regulation. This innovation has resulted in an expansion of the lab’s capabilities.
In the 1990s, the lab took part in a major water analysis project, the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations Phase II/Phase V project, after the EPA set rules for dozens of chemical contaminants in public water system supplies. The project provided the DEP with better water quality data and required an immense amount of resources, Goss said.
“From the laboratory side, we were required to test thousands of drinking water samples/systems across the state for 15 IOCs — inorganic compounds, 21 VOCs or volatile organic compounds and 28 SOCs or synthetic organic compounds,” Goss said. “This was a great undertaking and took a couple of years to accomplish.”
Goss has worked in the DEP for almost 30 years. The lab’s work during his tenure has also expanded to include analyzing water samples for toxic harmful algal blooms, which has closed waterways in the past due to unsafe water quality and cancelled portions of the Ironman Louisville triathlon.
Another recent expansion includes last year’s statewide drinking water analysis for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) commonly referred to as “forever chemicals.” Kentucky is one of only two labs in the U.S. EPA’s Southeast Region able to test for PFAS.
PFAS is used in the production of stain and water resistant materials, nonstick cookware and fire fighting foam. PFAS exposure can present health complications and may cause cancer.
Ewing played a major role in the lab’s PFAS project, serving as the sole chemist dedicated to testing samples from across the state.
When Ewing started developing the method for testing water samples, there was limited information on how to analyze for PFAS. The EPA was in the process of finalizing a new method. Fortunately, the DEPS laboratory had purchased the instrument used for the method a couple of years earlier — a liquid chromatograph mass spectrometer mass spectrometer, also known as an LC-MS/MS.
Using the EPA’s framework, Ewing then had to look for places that supplied standards for the analysis.
“That was not an easy thing to do at the time,” Ewing said. “Since this analysis was very new, there were very few suppliers available.” Ewing said. “Once I had all of the standards and reagents needed for the analysis, I had to create methods on my instrument to be able to look for PFAS. ”
Once Ewing had his analytical method in place, he then had to go through multiple processes to ensure consistency and precision with his results, as well as determine how small of an amount of PFAS could reliably be detected.
“Once all of these steps were in place, I was then able to have real drinking water samples collected and then analyzed,” Ewing said.
A lot has changed during his 25 years at the lab, Ewing said.
When he started, doing such analyses and prepping samples for testing took six or seven people. Now, with advanced technology, it only takes one or two people to do the same amount of work and a lot less chemicals, he said.
Throughout Ewing’s tenure, two things were constant: his enthusiasm for his work and the lab’s ability to grow as more sophisticated tests were needed. He said he feels especially blessed to have been involved in the recent PFAS analysis.
“This has given me the ability to develop the analysis of something new,” he said. “I am looking forward to my upcoming retirement, but at the same time I would have liked to be involved in the new direction that the lab is going.”
Read more about the Division of Environmental Program Support here.
Brad Bowman is an executive advisor within the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Office of Communication.