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Louisville's Air Program Marks Successes, But Health Concerns Linger

Trish Lee’s small yellow house is a block away from Bells Lane, where many of the Rubbertown factories are concentrated. From her backyard, she can’t see the chemical plants, rail yards and oil refineries that have stood down the street for decades — but she can smell them just about anywhere.

“Sometimes it burns,” she said. “Like you can go outside, sometimes at night, and your eyes actually burn.”

And this is almost eight years after Louisville’s revolutionary air toxics program was officially implemented. Now, all the measures of the city’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction Program have gone into effect. Through a regulatory program that relies on complicated models of chemicals and meteorological data, the program has succeeded in reducing the levels of dangerous chemicals in Louisville’s air, but those living closest to the plants continue to have concerns about their health.

Lee squints at a sheet of paper in her lap and reads the response she wrote 16 years ago to a health survey of the neighborhood.

“In the neighborhood where I live, we have so much air pollution you can’t even sit in your yard, because sometimes the odors are so bad. If you wash your car, the next morning there is white dust all over it.”

Nearly a decade after Lee and many others wrote their comments in the survey, the city passed the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction, or STAR, program.But the process of improving air quality near Rubbertown began decades earlier. And it's still ongoing.

A history of air pollution

As early as 1946, the city realized that air pollution was a problem and that it disproportionately affected the poorer western side of town. The federal government funded a studyof the city’s air pollution in the 1950s —the report mentions concerns about odors and irritation, but not serious health effects.

By the 1990s, new information was emerging about the links between toxic chemical emissions and health. Art Williams was the director of Louisville’s Air Pollution Control District at the time.

“The citizens had a very real concern from exposure to the smells coming from Rubbertown and a belief that those smells must be connected to chemicals that have harmful health effects,” he said. “And they were generally very correct about that.”

In 2002, Jefferson County topped a federal list as the community in the region with the highest potential adverse effect from toxics.

The next year, for the first time, local air monitoring presented concrete evidenceof what was in the air over West Louisville: 17 dangerous chemicals were found in unsafe amounts.

The city’s answer was STAR. Air Pollution Control District Environmental Engineering Manager Paul Aud says unlike a federal program, STAR is tailored to Louisville, and the hazardous chemicals that are known to be in the city’s air.

“STAR is for Louisville, Kentucky,” he said. “You can’t just take this and take it to Memphis and have it be effective.”

A reduction in toxic chemicals

One of the reasons STAR was — and still is — held up as an example of a program that works is that it takes into account the way people are exposed to chemicals in the real world. Or, as Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council puts it:

“Because when a person’s standing on the corner of Algonquin and 41st, their lungs don’t say oh, ‘I’m just going to breathe this emission today and not that emission,’” he said.

Under STAR, industries get permits for what chemicals they’re using, where the emissions are likely to go, and what other chemicals are being emitted in the area. It’s a complicated process — but one that’s been successful in reducing volatile organic compounds like acrylonitrile and chloroform.

Art Williams is driving through Rubbertown, Trish Lee's neighborhood. When he was in charge of the Air Pollution Control District and in the process of creating STAR, he was here at least once a month. He points to a structure outside of American Synthetic Rubber’s facility.

“So there’s the thermal oxidizer, the tall entity there at American Synthetic Rubber,” he said. That thermal oxidizer destroys the dangerous chemical 1,3 butadiene, which means less is released into the air.

STAR was officially approvedby the Air Pollution Control Board in June 2005. The regulations were phased in, so companies had time to comply. And the last group of companies came under the STAR program on Sept. 30, 2012.

APCD Engineering Supervisor Matt King says even after companies are permitted, the district continues to monitor to make sure the regulations are being followed.

“With most of this stuff, you can’t just trust what they do today won’t always be the case so we have to keep up with them and make sure they’re following these plans,” he said. “And that will go on for the life of the regulation.”

A success story?

By all accounts, STAR has been a success. Industries cooperated in the process, and in some cases, voluntarily reduced their emissions before the program went into effect.

Greg Brotzge is the head of the Louisville Chemistry Partnership, which is an affiliation of five of the larger Rubbertown companies. He says STAR was a hurdle that the companies overcame.

“What struck me at the time was this general sense that industry wasn’t welcome in Louisville,” he said. “I think there was a big concern about that. And I think that’s taken some time to get over.”

But the industries didn’t leave Louisville because of the regulations, and the levels of toxic chemicals in Louisville’s air have dropped drastically. Thanks to new infrastructure, like that thermal oxidizer at American Synthetic Rubber, there’s been an 80 percent reduction of 1,3 butadiene, a known human carcinogen.

But problems linger. Air monitors show the ambient levels of 1,3 butadiene are still 20 times what’s considered a “healthy” level, and those who have lived in Rubbertown for decades wonder what all this air in their lungs is going to do to the rest of their bodies.Listen to the story.

This month-long series will look at those health effects. Read the whole series here.

Erica’s reporting on health issues in Rubbertown was undertaken as a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.