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As Rubbertown Company Awaits Decision On Toxic Air Permit, Residents Cry Foul

American Synthetic Rubber
American Synthetic Rubber

Air Pollution Control District officials are expected to decide this week whether they’ll approve or deny a request to allow a Rubbertown company to modify the amount of a carcinogen it’s allowed to emit under the city’s toxic air pollution regulations.

The issue involves the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program, or STAR, which regulates toxic air emissions in the county. All companies that have toxic releases have to meet certain health-based goals for the community. And in this case, American Synthetic Rubber is requesting the city grant permission to modify those goals for a known human carcinogen called 1,3 butadiene.

It’s a request that’s garnered a lot of attention throughout the city, especially in West Louisville. Since the proposal was announced earlier this year, residents showed up for three public hearings on the proposal. One of them was Annette Strom, who lives on Algonquin Parkway.

“The question that’s always posed, is this something you would want in your community,” she said. “I can never get anyone to say yes. And we don’t want it either. So I just don’t feel like we have to. Why?”

For Strom, American Synthetic Rubber’s request is just the latest in a long line of indignities she’s seen rain down on her neighborhood. She’s within a few miles of Rubbertown, where ASRC is only one of several chemical plants. There’s also the city’s sewage treatment plant nearby. And the smells that permeate Algonquin Parkway affect Strom’s quality of life.

“Really what I hate about it is, we’re outside people,” she said. She’s proud of her backyard, with a huge yucca plant, carefully maintained flower beds and edible plants.

“These are my herbs, basil and mint,” she said, pinching off a sprig.

The smells are the most prevalent reminder of the proximity of Rubbertown to Strom’s home. And she’s opposing ASRC’s request because she sees it as a move in the wrong direction — loosening standards for emissions rather than tightening them.

How Low Can Emissions Go?

Under Louisville’s STAR program, which was enacted in 2005, companies emitting toxic chemicals have to prove they’re still meeting health goals. If they aren’t, they have to prove their using what the Air Pollution Control District calls the "best available control technology” to get their emissions as low as possible.

“ASRC has complied with the STAR goals for plantwide emissions and ASRC has implemented best available control technologies to comply with other emissions from butadiene,” said Eric Bruner, a spokesman for ASRC parent company Michelin.

To comply with STAR, American Synthetic Rubber has two different — but related — emissions goals the facility is required to meet.

One of those is an overall goal, including all the chemicals and all of the processes. Under the current regulation, American Synthetic Rubber can’t release more toxic chemicals than would cause 7.5 cancer cases in a population of 1 million after exposure to the emissions for 70 years. The facility isn’t asking for that to change.

But there are also goals for individual chemicals, and that’s where ASRC is seeking a modification.

The company is asking for regulators to allow nearly a doubling of the cancer risk for 1,3 butadiene coming from ASRC’s flare.

That would increase the risk from 1 cancer case in a million to 1.93 in a million.

The facility also wants a modified goal for the 1,3 butadiene that’s released as fugitive emissions, like what slips out through leaks: an increase from 10 cancer cases in a million to 63.36 on the industrial site, and an increase from 1 in a million to 3.04 cases in a million off-site.

Bruner said ASRC has spent about $15 million on equipment to reduce the plant’s emissions. They’ve installed a thermal oxidizer, which got rid of most of the emissions from the facility’s flare. They also have a robust leak detection program, and have tightened their definition of what a “leak” is, and therefore what has to be fixed.

And Bruner said that’s shown impressive results.

“We have reduced emissions from the plant by more than 90 percent since 2003 and on butadiene emissions, those have been reduced by 47 percent, or nearly half, in the last three years,” he said.

But when First District Councilwoman Jessica Green looks at the issue, rather than progress she sees an environmental justice issue.

“There are those of us, who primarily live in West and Southwest Louisville, primarily have brown skin, who for years have been expected to bear the brunt of the environmental ills in our city, in our community and in this country, and that’s a problem,” she said.

The Metro Council, led by Green, unanimously passed a non-binding resolution last month urging the Air Pollution Control District to deny ASRC's request.

When it was enacted, STAR contained a provision for companies to request modifications if they couldn’t meet the increasingly-stringent goals. But Russ Barnett of the Kentucky Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development at the University of Louisville said if the city grants ASRC’s request, it could be a slippery slope.

“It starts you down a path that’s going to make the STAR program, weaken the entire program,” Barnett said. “If you make this exception, it’s what’s known as ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ So you try to help this company, then the next company that comes along to make a similar argument for some other chemical, and you’re always going to have to make decisions with less and less science behind it. That’s the problem.”

'We know it's killing us'

Neither Annette Strom nor Denise Snorton, who lives near Chickasaw Park, know if the odors that routinely plague their neighborhoods are from American Synthetic Rubber. They could be from any of the dozen or so chemical plants nearby, or from the Morris Forman sewage treatment plant. And neither can pinpoint whether they’re smelling 1,3 butadiene—the chemical in question—or a number of other odors.

But both women figure ASRC and butadiene are part of the problem, and they’d prefer fewer toxic emissions in their air.

“My entire life, yes, as kids, when we would go to other areas we would say, ‘oh, it doesn’t smell here,’” Snorton said. “So we’ve been abused with this odor for, I’m 64, 64 years.”

Her band-aid solution to deal with the stench is more chemicals, in the form of air fresheners.

“Now it gets so heavy that it’s in the house,” she said. “Yesterday, I bought 8 glade plug-ins. It’s a way of life, you have to keep plug-ins in your home.”

But what really worries her is the cancer risk.

“We know that we have more cancer down here, no we don’t know what it is,” she said. “We know it’s killing us.”

Cancer is a complicated disease, and with a few exceptions, it’s difficult to link chemical exposure to a certain type of cancer. There are a number of factors that can contribute, including the environment, genetics and lifestyle. But a 2013 analysis found people in the zip codes near Rubbertown were nearly 35 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than those in other Louisville zip codes with similar median incomes.And they were about 31 percent more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer than people in the other zip codes.

"ASRC can demonstrate to the community, can assure the community that the law itself has established appropriate safeguards to protect the community’s health and well-being, and there’s no negative impact for public health and safety from the plant," said spokesman Eric Bruner.

Denise Snorton said she hopes the Louisville Air Pollution Control District denies American Synthetic Rubber’s request for a permit modification. And if the company can’t meet the health risk goals laid out in the STAR program?

“Then their business needs to close,” she said. “It’s just profit and life is life. You can’t put profit over life.”

Air Pollution Control District officials are expected to announce their decision in the case this week.

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