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Unequal: Despite Progress, Louisville's Toxic Air Still Mostly Affects Poor, Black Residents

Rubbertown by J. Tyler Franklin, Louisville Public Media-105052
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

The odors waft over the fence lines and freeways into neighborhoods, smelling acrid, sweet and noxious.

Smell, by itself, is a poor barometer for measuring the risk of exposure to toxic pollution, but for the people who live near Louisville’s highest concentration of chemical and manufacturing facilities, smell is the best measure they’ve got right now.  

No one has regularly tested the air for harmful chemicals since 2013, so it’s not clear what threat those odors might pose, if any.

The data that we do have suggests polluters have made significant progress reducing toxic air emissions across the city, but it’s also clear the pollution that remains is a burden disproportionately shouldered by neighborhoods in west and south Louisville, according to a WFPL analysis and more than a dozen interviews.

Today, more than 80 percent of all the toxic air pollution released in Jefferson County is released in west and south Louisville, according to Environmental Protection Agency records.

On a night back in October, West End residents thought they might learn more about what’s actually in their air. The EPA had been testing equipment and Eben Thoma, a mild-mannered EPA researcher, was scheduled to discuss his research at a community meeting in Louisville.

The local air quality regulator, the Air Pollution Control District, held the meeting the night before Halloween at an elementary school a mile from the corridor of chemical and manufacturing plants known as Rubbertown.

Thoma promised to share initial results with one caveat.

“It’s very important to understand,” he said, “This is not a health or exposure study, this is a technology development project.”

In a room of more than a dozen people, only three were neighborhood residents: Mike McCloud, Charles Pope and Eboni Cochran — the co-director of the grassroots organization Rubbertown Emergency ACTion.

Thoma came prepared with a slideshow. He pointed to graphs, charts and timelines of results and explained the new air monitors he's developing.

But for Cochran and the others, what he did not have, were answers about how this was going to help the community in the near-term.

“There is value to what you are doing,” Cochran said. “However, when we’re living in this toxic soup, you have to have long-term strategies, which is what you’re doing, but we as the people who live here need immediate relief.”

Toxic Soup

The air quality in Louisville is as good as it’s ever been, decades after the city’s air was thick with the pollution of coal-fired power plants, slaughterhouses, whiskey distilleries and synthetic rubber manufacturers.

Still, Louisville’s chemical, manufacturing and power plants released about 3.6 million pounds of toxic air pollution in 2017, including 79 hazardous air pollutants, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, the most recent data available.

Of those, at least 22 pollutants increase the risk of cancer, according to EPA records. They’re also associated with a variety of other adverse health impacts. Air toxics can affect immune, nervous and reproductive systems. They can damage organs including the liver, kidney, lungs and heart. And they can also cause other short-term impacts, ranging from headaches and nausea, to asthma attacks.

The greatest health risks posed by toxic air pollution come from the concentration of facilities in west and south Louisville. Fifty-six out of 68 facilities that release toxic air pollution are located there, according to a WFPL analysis.

Those communities are also home to the city’s dump, the state’s largest sewage treatment plant, at least two major Superfund sites, the airport, rail yards, the Mill Creek coal-fired power plant and the Cane Run natural gas power plant.

Many of these chemical and manufacturing facilities are located in Rubbertown, beside the Ohio River on the western edge of town. Others are spread throughout the city, near neighborhoods, parks and churches.

In addition to the pollution, some also handle toxic and flammable chemicals deemed extremely hazardous by the EPA. So much so, these facilities are required to have plans in case of catastrophic events like explosions and chemical leaks.  

The people who live closest to facilities that release toxic air pollution in Louisville are often the most disadvantaged. Those at greatest risk are twice as likely to live in poverty and nearly three times as likely to be a person of color, according to the WFPL analysis.

Another Study

Eboni Cochran has been attending meetings like the one in October since 2003. She’s seen study after study.  She’s learned that she needs to properly pronounce each chemical and avoid going off-topic. All of that can be used to discredit you, she said.

But, Cochran and other environmental justice advocates are tired. This is a fight that’s gone on for decades, and they feel there’s so much more that needs to be done. On that night in late October, after arguing with local officials, she’d had enough.

“You know, what? I’m gone, I’m going to love and kiss on my son because you guys are junk,” Cochran said.

She grabbed her car keys and walked out.

In her stead, Michele Roberts, an advocate with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, stood, commanding the room’s attention.

“What is the remedy and redress for this community?” Roberts’ yelled. “You have a moral responsibility to the health and well-being of these communities.”

“How many people must die and be sick?... How dare you all sit here with these stone faces.”

For four and a half minutes, Roberts scolded those left in Cochran’s wake.

“I do not apologize for the strength of my voice right now,” she said. “How dare you people, how dare you. I know you go to work every day to do the right thing. You haven’t done it yet. Let tomorrow be the first day.”

The researcher, Thoma, never really recovered after that, and he never did make it through all his slides.

In an interview, Keith Talley, director of the Air Pollution Control District, acknowledged that much of the West End has historically been overburdened with the impacts of toxic air pollution and a number of other injustices.

“I think that the major issue is the fact that we still have folks that live in very close proximity to those chemical companies,” Talley said. “We are working really hard to reduce those emissions, but for those who live right there at the area points of maximum concentration, that will still be an issue for them.”

Chipping Away

There are still large gaps in our understanding of toxic air pollution in Louisville.

For example, no one group or agency has filled the void left since West Jefferson County Community Task Force lost funding for the city’s only toxic air monitoring program in 2013. This sort of testing is key to understanding everyday air quality in the city’s most impacted areas.

The Air Pollution Control District is trying to get one monitor online, but the dates have been continually pushed back because of equipment and calibration issues. 

Without that data, the community has relied on computer modeling and self-reporting from companies that emit toxic air pollution. That data is verified by the Air Pollution Control District -- the state’s only local air quality regulator -- through on-site inspections and looking over the data produced by companies.

That program, the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction Program (STAR) uses the data to estimate health risks so that regulators can work with companies to reduce their toxic air pollution.

Rachael Hamilton, with the Air Pollution Control District, said it’s the only local program of its kind in the nation. It’s also a program that wouldn’t exist without community pressure.

“It’s a trust, but verify situation,” Hamilton said.

What we know from that data, is that companies that produce toxic air pollution have significantly curtailed emissions since the program began in 2005.

The STAR program contributed to a 73 percent decrease in the total amount of air toxics released between 2005 and 2017, according to the Air Pollution Control District.

But that doesn’t mean the work is done, Cochran said. Telling people that the air pollution has improved without also saying that’s it’s still “horrendous” would be misleading, she said.

In March, Cochran spoke about air quality in front of students and their families at The Academy at Shawnee. She asked the audience to describe how Louisville’s West End is perceived by others.

People shouted back words like “crime-ridden,” “dangerous,” “ghetto,” “dirty,” “abandoned,” “unhealthy,” “scary,” and “black.” It’s that narrative, it’s that lens, that frames decisions, Cochran told students.  

“In my opinion, that helps to drive some of the policy decisions that are made because we can just dump it in west Louisville,” she said. “We can just relax their pollution rules and it doesn’t matter because those people in west Louisville and southwest Louisville are expendable.”

This is the first of several stories examining Louisville's toxic air pollution and its disparate impacts. To read other stories in the series, click here.

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