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Neighbors, Councilmembers 'Outraged' Over Approved Toxic Air Modification

American Synthetic Rubber
American Synthetic Rubber

Louisville regulators say they’ll grant part of a request from a Rubbertown company to modify its toxic air permit for a carcinogen called 1,3 butadiene, while denying another part of the request. The decision was announced today.

While lawmakers and a community activist were pleased the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District hadn’t granted the entire request for modification, they were outraged American Synthetic Rubber will not have to meet the original goals laid out in the city’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction (STAR) program for 1,3 butadiene that’s released as fugitive emissions.

“Do black lives and poor lives in West Louisville not matter?” asked Third District Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, who represents some residential areas near the chemical plants in Rubbertown. “I think they do, and I am totally disappointed.”

What Was The Proposal?

Like every other company that emits toxic air pollution, American Synthetic Rubber has to comply with the regulations laid out in Louisville’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program, which was enacted in 2005. STAR uses extensive modeling, and requires these companies to prove they’re still meeting health goals. If they aren’t, they have to prove they’re using what the Air Pollution Control District calls the “Best Available Technology” to get their emissions as low as possible.

American Synthetic Rubber is meeting the goals laid out in its STAR permit for overall plant emissions, but sought a permit modification for its 1,3 butadiene emissions. The chemical, which is a known human carcinogen, is used in the production of synthetic rubber. And ASRC said it was using the best available technology and had reduced the plant’s emissions, but was still falling short of the STAR goals.

“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,” said spokesman Eric Bruner.

Today, Air Pollution Control District Executive Director Keith Talley announced the company will be allowed to more than triple the cancer risk for 1,3 butadiene coming from fugitive emissions, like what slips out through leaks. This is an increase from 1 cancer case in a million (assuming 70 years of exposure) to 3.04 cases in a million for the non-industrial property outside of ASRC’s fence line.

Talley said this essentially means emissions will stay steady at the plant, because the company isn't currently meeting the 1-in-a-million goal. He said regulators believe ASRC has done what it can to reduce those emissions, and they’ll continue to work with them to meet the original STAR goal.

“They still have work to do on that one,” he said. “Our expectation is for them to ultimately meet that goal, and that will be what the district works toward.”

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.

But the APCD denied the second part of ASRC’s request, which would have nearly doubled the cancer risk for 1,3 butadiene coming from ASRC’s flare.

Talley said the APCD denied that request because they didn’t feel it was necessary.

“They don’t need it,” he said. “They already meet the [goal of one in a million] and have met it for the last 10 years or so.”

Bruner said ASRC will be able to keep operating the plant at the same level without interruption, despite the denial.

“We were trying to give the plant some industrial flexibility,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that the plant would operate without exceeding the conditions in the future and that was really the focus of it.”

'West Louisville...has been forgotten'

But it’s not just about the cancer risk, and it’s not just about butadiene or American Synthetic Rubber, said Eboni Cochran of Rubbertown Emergency ACTion.

“These chemicals also have non-cancerous effects,” she said. “So we’re talking about cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease. We’re talking about reproductive issues, so it’s not just ‘one in a million.’ We’re talking about lots of different things this one chemical could do to damage one’s body.” 

ASRC is only one of the sources of 1,3 butadiene in Louisville; the APCD estimates about 72 percent of the chemical in the air comes from sources like cars and trucks. But the company’s toxic air permit modification request attracted a lot of attention, both in West Louisville neighborhoods near Rubbertown and around the city.

The APCD held three public hearings on the modification, where the proposal drew criticism from residents. Last month, the Louisville Metro Council unanimously opposed granting the request in a non-binding resolution.

First District Councilwoman Jessica Green said city leaders have worked hard on air issues like hookah and indoor cigarette smoking, while she feels like pollution from Rubbertown is ignored.

“While issues about hookah have been lobbied about and there’ve been discussions about clean air as it relates to that, we in West Louisville and Southwest Louisville have once more been forgotten and there has been no leadership,” she said.

Councilwoman Mary Woolridge echoed that, warning Mayor Greg Fischer that her constituents would remember his perceived inaction during his next election campaign.

“This is something that is very personal to me because the people I represent deserve to have the same healthy place to live in Metro Louisville as anyone else,” she said.

In an emailed statement, Fischer backed up the Air Pollution Control District’s decision.

"This decision is the most stringent ruling that APCD can issue today under the current law,” he wrote. "However, this determination does not end the requirements for ASRC to continue the pursuit to reduce emissions even more, especially as technology improves and allows for even further reductions.”

STAR allows any final determination — like this one — to be appealed.

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