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Air Issues Plague Park DuValle, One of Louisville's Newest Planned Communities

In the late 1990s, Louisville spent nearly $200 million revitalizing a blighted area on the West End. Park DuValle emerged—and has since been nationally-recognized as a model mixed-income community. But one thing the city couldn't change was the neighborhood's location. And like the housing projects that stood before it, Park DuValle is next to Louisville’s industrial area. Residents say the odors in the air are often unbearable.

The two communities that make up Park DuValle—the Villages and the Oaks—are spotless. They’re a mix of newer single-family homes and townhomes, patterned after a walkable city neighborhood.

Tidy lawns. White picket fences. An elementary school in the middle of the neighborhood.

On a recent day, as school lets out, kids fill the sidewalks and buses.

Park DuValle is a Hope VI development—a mixed-income community built with significant public and private investment to replace the older, barracks-style housing projects. But like those housing projects, Park DuValle is still less than mile downwind from the industries of Rubbertown.

That’s something Sharrona Rembert didn’t know when she and her husband rented their house several months ago. Or, at least it’s not something she thought about.

“I was just kind of happy to find a rental property that was in a nice neighborhood, kind of close to my family, a little big further into the city,” she said. “That was really all I was thinking about. I really wasn’t thinking about Rubbertown. I really didn’t equate this to being an area that was going to be affected by that. Until after I moved in, of course.”

Unbearable odors

Rembert and several of her neighbors say the air smells like a mix of chemicals and sewage, and they don't know where it's coming from. Recently, Rembert says it’s been so strong, it’s getting inside her house.

“I can deal with the smells outside, I understand that, but I just wasn’t expecting to smell it in the house.”

Neither was Sherwood Weir.

“It’s so bad that you can’t stay in the house,” he said.

Weir lives a block away. He says he buys a lot of incense to try and fight the smell that seeps into his home.

“My wife, if we had the money, we’d leave. We’d leave. Without any question. Because it’s that bad. She can’t sleep at night. There’s nights when you just can’t tolerate it. It’s the worst smell I’ve ever smelled, and I’m 61 years old.”

Weir and his wife own their house, and have lived there for six years. He says the smells have gotten worse in that time, even though landmark air toxics regulations have taken effect.

No disclosure requirement

Under Kentucky law, someone selling a house is required to fill out a checklist disclosing any known hazardous conditions—things like a history of radon gas, basement leaking or termites. Under federal law, landlords and sellers have to inform renters and buyers about lead paint. But Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council says there’s no requirement to disclose any information about nearby environmental or health hazards.

“I’ve raised that issue,” FitzGerald said. “There is no obligation legally to disclose to somebody when you sell them a house if they’re in proximity to a landfill or to an industrial factory where there are going to be odors, to a Superfund site. There is no obligation to do that under the law.”

There’s also no obligation to tell nearby residents what they’re breathing. And Sherwood Weir says the mystery adds to the stress.

“And on top of everything, no one seems to be able to tell us what kind of damage this is doing, not just to us, but to people who come to visit us, the grandkids,” he says, shaking his head. “No one knows for sure. And they don’t seem to care.”

Air pollution officials say they do care, and that they’ve opened an investigation into the odors in Park DuValle.

Despite the constant worry and quality of life issues that the odors pose for Rembert and Weir, a decade of air monitoring shows that levels of dangerous toxics in the air have dropped. Russ Barnett of the University of Louisville says the more data he collects, the more the city will know about what people are being exposed to.

“What you’re really interested in is what’s the typical exposure that you’re having,” he said. “And the longer we keep monitoring, the more accurate our data becomes of representing actually what your exposures might be in the city.”

These chemicals are all dangerous, with enough exposure. But it’s nearly impossible to measure the real effect on health, because relatively little is known about the effects of combining different chemicals or how they can affect a person over time.

That's frustrating for Sharrona Rembert, who says the issue should have been resolved by now. "I’m new to the neighborhood, but I know that this is not a new issue," she said. "But I know that a lot of people probably just feel like, you know, we’ve been dealing with this for years.”

It’s also hard to get an accurate picture of what chemicals are present when Park DuValle residents complain of odors. Barnett’s monitors take samples every 12 days at six sites around Louisville, but he estimates there’s only a 10 percent chance he’ll capture evidence of accidental releases or permit violations.Listen to the story.

Read the rest of the series

Coming up Friday, in our next installment: a look at accidental releases of dangerous chemicals.

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

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