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Study: High-Risk Chemical Facilities Near Two-Thirds Of Louisville Residents

Rubbertown seen form above using Google Maps.
Courtesy of Google
Rubbertown seen form above using Google Maps.

Two-thirds of Louisville residents live within three miles of chemical facilities that use toxic and flammable substances deemed extremely hazardous by the EPA, according toa new study from the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform.

The dangers posed by these high-risk chemical facilities were highlighted in 2011 when a furnace explosion killed two and injured two more at a Carbide Industries chemical manufacturing facility in Rubbertown, in west Louisville.

But the risks posed by these chemical facilities are not shared equally. The city's highest population of people of color live in the communities surrounding Rubbertown, which also has the city's highest concentration of high-risk facilities, according to the report.

Living At The Fenceline

These are Louisville's fenceline communities — those that live closest to facilities the Environmental Protection Agency requires to make plans in the event of a catastrophic explosion or chemical leak.

Across the city, Louisville's black population is 28 percent more likely to live within three miles of a high-risk chemical facility, according to the report. The percentage of people living in poverty is 23 percent higher for those living within three miles of a facility than the city overall, the report found.

“While the information in the report is not surprising for us who live near the fenceline, it will probably be absolutely eye-opening for those who feel they are free from worry regarding the issue of exposure to toxic chemicals," said Eboni Cochran, co-director of Rubbertown Emergency ACTion (REACT).

Louisville was one of nine communities the Environmental Justice Health Alliance studied to better understand the hazards facing communities that live within three miles of high-risk chemical facilities.

Across the country, there were more than 1,500 chemical releases or explosions at high-risk chemical facilities resulting in more than 17,000 injuries and 58 deaths from 2004 to 2013, according to the report.

The fenceline communities the Environmental Justice Health Alliance researched were disproportionately black, Latino and impoverished.  The study’s lead author, Ron White, said that's in part because these facilities are often located in places with less political power.

“These facilities, whether they be chemical facilities or power plants or heavy industrial facilities, are located close to these communities because they don’t have the power to prevent these facilities from being located in their communities,” White said.

Compared to the other nine communities in the study, Louisville had the highest percentage of hospitals and nursing homes in fenceline zones — 88 percent of all of those in the city — according to the report. Hospitals and nursing homes are particularly vulnerable because it can be difficult to get people out of harm’s way, White said.

“Also, if there is a major incident that releases toxic chemicals in these communities, if the hospital is within the three-mile zone around these facilities, the hospital may be unable to handle the patients that would need to come in as a result of being exposed,” he said.

Accidental Releases

The study used EPA data from December 2015 that found 23 high-risk chemical facilities in Louisville operating with risk management plans. Today, there are 20, according to EPA records.

The EPA requires high-risk chemical facilities to file risk management plans that identify the impacts a chemicals accident would have, steps to avoid a catastrophe and emergency procedures for worst-case scenarios.

The most common high-risk toxic chemical used in Louisville chemical facilities is Anhydrous Ammonia— a colorless gas with suffocating fumes that is often used as an industrial refrigerant, according to a review of EPA records.

There have been at least three accidental releases of ammonia in Louisville since 2010. Most were small, isolated releases. The largest release was at the JBS pork processing plant in Butchertown in 2011 when a valve failed and released 680 pounds of ammonia, according to EPA records. The plant reported two on-site injuries, but said there were no off-site consequences.

One of the latest incidents at a high-risk chemical facility occurred in September when a fire broke out at the American Synthetic Rubber Company in Dreamland.  The Courier Journal reported a fire damaged the roof and two people were injured.

Future Regulations Unclear

The future of how the EPA will regulate these high-risk chemical facilities remains uncertain.

In mid-September, the D.C. Circuit U.S. Appeals Court mandated the EPA to enforce new rules for high-risk chemical facilities.

The rules require more coordination with local emergency response organizations, third-party audits, safer technology and alternative analyses, and incident investigations. They also require more these facilities to provide more information to the public.

However, the current EPA administration has proposed to repeal many of these amendments.

Cochran, with REACT, said these regulations are necessary to inform and protect some of Louisville’s most vulnerable communities.

“We should all be concerned about the next human who is suffering unnecessarily,” Cochran said. “Some of these things can be rectified through number one, not rolling back important regulations. Number two, the use of safer chemicals and technologies.”

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.