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Louisville’s stink will continue, despite complaints and promises to fix

A sewer catch basin on a street.
Lilly Burris
Catch basins like this are the source of many odor issues across the city's West End.

Odor complaints reached a record high in 2023. Sewer officials promised to work on the issue in 2019. What’s changed?

The breeze that makes the wind chimes ring on Ashia Powell’s front porch in Park Duvalle will also, on a hot day, send a sickening stench across the neighborhood.

Some days the smell is like rotten eggs or feces, Powell said. A stink that seeps from the sewer grate on the street in front of her home on 32nd Street. Other times, the distinctive scent of chemicals drifts from the Rubbertown industrial corridor just a few blocks west.

“We don't know what that smell is, we don't know how much it’s causing any type of sickness or illness in anyone,” she said.

Local officials know the odors are a problem. But in Louisville, a city inundated with smells from distilleries, a slaughterhouse, the chemical industry and an antiquated sewer system, there’s little indication the fetor is fading.

Last year, residents submitted more than 4,100 odor complaints to the city’s Air Pollution Control District — the most complaints tracked by the agency in a single year since 2018, according to data obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

People reported smells like acetone, the “state fair” and rotten eggs. In one case from December 2023, someone said it smelled like “Hogtown hair burning.” In another, they said it's “like absolute waste and dead bodies for over two months.”

In 2023, more than half of the complaints submitted to the APCD came from the neighborhoods in and around the city's predominately Black West End.

Experts say this is no surprise — disinvestment in Black neighborhoods across the country has led to a range of disparities across infrastructure, transportation and housing.

In Louisville, the disparities can be the difference in life and death.

A woman sits on a porch.
Lily Burris
Ashia Powell submitted six complaints to local air pollution officials last year because putrid odors inundated her neighborhood.

A recent report from the Louisville Metro Center for Health Equity shows life expectancy in the city's West End is nearly 12 years less than the more affluent — and white — east end. The report details how people in the West End suffer from higher rates of cancer and cardiovascular diseases linked to air pollution. The city's West End is home to a myriad of industrial companies — rubber plants, a power plant, and the Morris Forman wastewater treatment facility.

In 2021, after the Metropolitan Sewer District failed to control odors from the Morris Forman facility in the city’s Algonquin neighborhood and violated local air regulations two years prior, the agency agreed to develop a plan to address the cause of problematic odor emissions. A key part of the plan is to replace or repair hundreds of catch basins in the city’s West End — like the one in front of Ashia Powell’s home. The agency identified more than 1,160 basins in need of repair. Today, less than 40 have been fixed, according to data obtained by KyCIR.

Wesley Sydnor, MSD’s chief of government and public affairs, said fixing the issues that cause the odors is the agency’s “number one priority.” Doing so, though, is expensive, he said. The agency is already struggling to afford the more than $4 billion in repairs needed in coming years — some which are tied to a federal consent decree that requires the agency to reduce how much sewage is pumped into waterways.

Sewer officials will start having community meetings on Tuesday April 23 about the odors. Four more meetings are scheduled for this year. The first meeting will be at the MSD Central Maintenance Facility on Commerce Center Place.

Metro Council member Phillip Baker, a District 6 Democrat, knows the smells and air pollution aren’t new problems in Louisville. He’s lived here most of his life and said his three kids have asthma and respiratory issues.

But he’s ready for improvements.

“My whole life they used to say, ‘Well, that's growing up in Ohio Valley,’ but we want to make sure, from a city standpoint, that it's not necessarily just growing up in the Ohio Valley,” Baker said. “We got to make sure that we're providing a safe environment, from a health standpoint, for every resident.”

Lots of smells, lots of costs

Since 2018, the city’s APCD has received nearly 8,000 odor complaints from people across the city, according to an analysis by KyCIR. The main culprit: sewage.

The city’s sewer system is old — some portions still in use today were installed in the 1860s — and this outdated infrastructure is to blame for much of the smell, Sydnor said.

Oftentimes, the stench will waft across neighborhoods, over backyards and into homes from a catch basin, the caverns that are protected by metal grates and found along the roadside. They function similarly to the J-shaped pipes under sinks. Trash and debris can pile on the already decomposing waste in the catch basin. Some basins have trap doors or hoods to help keep the odors in the sewer system.

When the basins get dry — often in the summer months when rain can be rare — the odors can escape, Sydnor said.

When this happens, sewer officials try to add water to the sewers to help flush out the catch basins.

“We have a partnership with Louisville Water Company to flush hydrants to get some water onto the street and into those catch basins to sort of fill them up and have that trap work as it was designed and built,” Sydnor said.

Sewer officials will inspect a catch basin if someone reports an odor, Sydnor said.

The more calls the agency gets about a specific basin, the higher likelihood the agency will put it on the list for repair, he said. The cost to fix a basin can range from $5,000 to $25,000, he said.

Sydnor said his department is expected to spend more than $4 million on retrofits and repairs to catch basins this fiscal year and any flexibility in the department’s budget is directed toward this work. MSD will spend an additional $2 million in general odor control, he said.

In 2021, former Rep. John Yarmuth asked Congress to designate funds to MSD to help address sewer odor issues in the Park Duvalle neighborhood. Sydnor said that the funding from Congress was promised to MSD but they still haven’t received it. MSD decided to go ahead and start work in the Park Duvalle neighborhood and use the funding for other similar projects.

“We have a significant number that we have to address and so it can get quite expensive and that's why going after funding from the federal government like the earmarks, the community project funding is so critical to us,” Sydnor said. “Not that we're waiting on that money to do the work, but it allows us to do more of this work and stretch our ratepayer dollars more when we have those federal funds and any state state funds that we can get on this work.”

In order to help with the costs of improving infrastructure, MSD raised rates in July 2023 by 6.9%, something they’ve been doing most years since 2016, according to reporting by WDRB.

Rebecca Marx, an associate with the Urban Institute in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, said water and wastewater infrastructure around the country is, on average, about 45 years old. Sydnor, with MSD, said some of Louisville’s sewer system dates back to the Andrew Johnson presidency.

“Unfortunately, what a lot of systems can't do is just do a major overhaul of the system, like get major investments in their public infrastructure, because that's essentially what needs to happen in a lot of places,” Marx said.

Getting local government, organizations and businesses to work together to find ways to secure funding for major infrastructure projects is part of the solution Marx pointed to. Doing case by case repairs and retrofits like Louisville MSD’s catch basin project won’t really address all of the bigger issues.

“If there's not an effort now to be thinking about the long term and securing the funding and the support for the larger improvements that are needed, then I think it's a mistake to only focus on the short term issues,” Marx said. “Which it is necessary to make those fixes as they come up, but it can't be the only solution to be thinking about here.”

Not all smells are sewage

For Rachael Hamilton, the director of the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District, the number of complaints is a good sign that people are engaging with the system that’s designed to identify odors.

But they’re not all from the sewers.

Other notable odors come from the JBS Swift meat processing plant in Butchertown, the industrial companies in Rubbertown and the distilleries in California, the reports show.

The city’s APCD can penalize companies that violate air emission regulations. APCD officials ordered JBS Swift to pay more than $44,000 in fines in 2021 after the company failed to control “objectionable odors” for three years.

The backside of the Swift Pork Company facility in Butchertown on March 22, 2023.
Ryan Van Velzer
The backside of the Swift Pork Company facility in Butchertown on March 22, 2023.

Since 2018, APCD has taken more than 80 enforcement actions against companies and citizens found in violation of their regulations.

“Oftentimes, when we're looking at industrial facilities, we'll pair our compliance officer with an industrial compliance engineer, so that we can be sure not only are we looking at it from a, ‘Gee does it stink?’ But also what's its regulatory significance,” Hamilton said.

The specific chemical that makes sewers smell is hydrogen sulfide, Hamilton said.

APCD has acquired a regulatory monitor for hydrogen sulfide that they’re going to install at their air monitoring station on Algonquin Parkway to help officials understand the chemical impacts. The district has also acquired handheld monitors to use in the neighborhoods as they get calls, she said.

“Typically in the ambient air, it's not a hazard,” Hamilton said. “We have seen concerns from the community because it is a quality of life issue, as it is now.”

An embarrassing problem

Metro Council Member Tammy Hawkins, a District 1 Democrat, stood in front of a crowd of people at the Southwick Community Center in early March and readied herself for questions that have been repeated for years in Louisville’s West End: Why does it smell so bad?

Air pollution officials were there, too, along with representatives from MSD and the city’s Department of Codes and Regulations.

A woman stands in a gym.
Lily Burris
Metro Council member Tammy Hawkins leads a discussion about odor problems in her West End district.

One woman wanted to know how sick people would get from the “real bad and putrid” smell in her neighborhood. Another wanted to know when the officials would take some action.

Eboni Cochran, the co-director of the Rubbertown Emergency ACTion, a local group that advocates for policies to prevent toxic air pollution, wanted to know how officials differentiate between the hydrogen sulfide that causes the sewer smell and other, more harmful, chemicals in the air.

“We all know that we've been complaining about the chemical odors in these neighborhoods,” she said.

Leia Miller lives a few blocks away from the meeting, in the Park Duvalle neighborhood. She works at the Ford plant and said she's been living in her current home for eight years. She said she calls MSD to report the “horrific” odors.

“It just smells gassy,” Miller said. “I was walking up in the middle of the night with slight headaches.”

She remembers a particular moment last November, when she had people visiting from out of town and staying at her home. At the time, her home smelled like a sewer.

“When I say embarrassed, oh, that was an understatement,” she said. “It just stank. I was so embarrassed, so, so embarrassed.”

Investigative Reporter Lily Burris is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email Lily at lburris@lpm.org.

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