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Nearly 8 Years After Pollution Was Found, Black Leaf Site Will Be Cleaned

Park Hill resident Marvin Hayes looks at old photos on his porch feet away from an abandoned, contaminated industrial site on April 3, 2018.
Park Hill resident Marvin Hayes looks at old photos on his porch feet away from an abandoned, contaminated industrial site on April 3, 2018.

Nearly eight years after environmental regulators found pesticides in the soil of an abandoned industrial site in West Louisville, the companies responsible will finally begin to clean up the mess.

ExxonMobil and others plan to begin demolishing buildings on the former site of Black Leaf Chemical in May, said Tim Hubbard, an environmental scientist with the Kentucky Division of Waste Management.

Decades ago, Black Leaf Chemical was home to a pesticide manufacturing facility that produced chemicals including DDT. The site has also housed a whiskey distillery, a cooperage and a wood millwork manufacturing company.

The toxic chemicals and byproducts produced there have contaminated the land and migrated into the surrounding neighborhood of Park Hill, according to state and federal testing.

By 2012, environmental regulators found poisonous and carcinogenic contaminants like arsenic, lead, pesticides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the yards of nearby homes.

Regulators have since removed and replaced contaminated topsoil from more than five dozen nearby properties.

And now, eight years after learning about the problem, cooperating parties will finally begin cleaning the site itself. The companies involved include ExxonMobil, the Occidental Chemical Corporation and Greif, Inc.

They’ll begin by demolishing about 20 abandoned buildings on the site, Hubbard said.

After that, contractors will flush the onsite plumbing, and remove and replace one to two feet of topsoil from about eight and a half acres of the property, he said.

"The cooperating parties, as part of the corrective action plan, they proposed cleaning up the site to commercial or industrial levels," Hubbard said. "The site will be safe for any commercial or industrial uses."

When complete, the site won’t be clean enough for residential use but Hubbard said there will be essentially no contamination on the surface.

That’s a relief for neighbors in Park Hill who’ve dealt not only with the contamination, but with the effects of living beside an abandoned industrial complex.

Marvin Hayes is a retired truck driver who lives in a tidy, single-story home next door to the site. His house sits just six to eight feet from the husk of a burnt-out building.

“The reason why it’s burnt, there was some kids that moved in,” Hayes said. “And we could hear them talk and once they heard we could hear them, they burned it down because it was a gang.”

Hayes’ house was among those that had its top soil replaced after the regulators learned of the contamination.

He’s watched as the site fell into disrepair. He's seen squatters come and go. He still tends to the overgrowth by the chain-link fence that separates his property from the site, and deals with the debris that flies into the back alley when the wind kicks up.

“Anything is better than nothing,” Hayes said about the cleanup.

Former environmental regulator Arnita Gadson said she’s hopeful the remediation will be enough to keep neighbors safe.

Gadson, who is now the director of the West Jefferson County Community Task Force, said she’d like to see the property benefit the community once the cleanup is finished.

“I’m optimistic, I’m looking at this as a beginning,” Gadson said. “We’ve got a lot more to go, yes if they clean up what they are saying that the responsible party has said they are going to clean up, I’m excited about that because the people have been exposed to this for years and years, many years without knowing.”

First Financial Bank, which took over the property just this week after merging with MainSource Bank, said it will market the property for sale for commercial and industrial use once the cleanup is complete.

The West Jefferson County Community Task Force will hold a meeting to discuss the cleanup in more detail on April 17 at the California Community Center.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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