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Park Hill Residents Worry Over Plan To Leave Hazardous Chemicals On Site

J. Tyler Franklin

Marvin Hayes fumbled with a chain on his gate.

“This kind of neighborhood you got to keep everything locked,” he laughed. “No free access.’”

Behind the gate is the backyard of his house in Louisville’s Park Hill neighborhood. And right over the barbed-wire fence is an abandoned industrial park, covering the equivalent of about 22 football fields about a 10-minute drive from downtown.

“This is how close they is to me,” Hayes said, as he gestured to the seven-foot strip of grass between his house and the fence.

This is the Black Leaf site. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the land housed a pesticide facility. Decades later, regulators discovered the site’s soil was contaminated, and in 2011, it was targeted for cleanup.

For the past few years, state and federal regulators have worked to figure out exactly how contaminated the site is. They discovered in some cases, the chemicals — like pesticides, heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — left the site and got into nearby yards. This sparked a massive cleanup, where regulators removed the contaminated dirt from more than five dozen nearby properties and replaced it with clean soil. But so far, nothing has been done on the Black Leaf site itself.

The parties responsible for the site include ExxonMobil, Occidental Chemical Corporation and Greif Inc.

An ExxonMobil spokeswoman told The Courier-Journal that the company was working to find a solution for the site that protects both human health and the environment, and they've submitted a plan to clean it up. And that has raised concerns among some of the site’s neighbors, like Hayes.

Hayes wants to see the site totally remediated — cleaned up so it could be redeveloped as housing or a park or anything else. But the plan the companies have submitted doesn’t go that far. Tim Hubbard of Kentucky’s Division of Waste Management said state law gives the companies a few different options.

“If they chose to clean up to residential screening levels, that would be great, and the property would then be available for residential or unrestricted use,” he said. “But they do have an option to clean to industrial or commercial levels and manage in place.”

Instead, the companies want to clean up just enough of Black Leaf so it’s cleared for industrial usage. Hubbard said there’s a caveat; they’ll have to monitor and manage the contamination that’s left. He said it also doesn’t mean that the site couldn’t ever be used for a shopping center or houses, because the state has additional programs to help developers build on brownfield sites.

But the fact that hazardous chemicals will legally be left in the site’s soil is hard for some to swallow.

“The fact that you can, under current state law, do less than clean up your mess completely doesn’t mean that it’s right,” Kentucky Resources Council Director Tom FitzGerald said.

“If I have a piece of property, and I go out and I take a bag of garbage and I dump it on the lawn, I’m littering, right?" he said. "And I don’t get to dicker with local authorities over whether I’m going to leave a couple of pieces behind, or how much garbage is reasonable for me to clean up, how much of my mess I should be responsible for.”

For Black Leaf’s neighbors, the concerns are numerous. They’re worried about the cumulative health effects of living next to the site for decades. They’re worried about what will be left behind, once the companies have cleaned up all they’re legally required to do. They’re worried that Black Leaf’s contamination and dilapidated buildings will further depress Park Hill’s property values.

Shirley Swope lives down the street from Marvin Hayes. She said she’s frustrated that community concerns don’t seem to be playing a larger role in the cleanup.

“Every time we have meetings and things like that, all they do is stick a pacifier in your mouth,” she said. “Just give you just a little bit of something so you won’t say anything. Just a little bit and that will cool you down for awhile 'til you come back again, and then they’ll give you just a little bit more.”

State regulators say they’ll hold another public meeting sometime soon, to get public input before they formally approve the cleanup plan. But Marvin Hayes doesn’t expect much.

“The bottom line is this: They know they can look through history and see that we are people of color, and back in the history and time people of color always been, like, on the back burner,” Hayes said. “Kind of left out. So what they’ve done, this whole West End is left out.”