Unequal: How West Louisville Residents Cleaned Up The Air
Annie Haigler keeps a postcard in her wallet. It’s been there for about a year now. The edges are frayed. The words are scribbled in ink, the thoughts are separated by dashes rather than periods.
Haigler has shown it to her children and grandchildren. It hurt them, she said. Tears welled in their eyes when they read it, afraid that she might be in danger.
Haigler lives in Park DuValle in the West End. Her neighborhood is one of a number of fenceline communities that border the city’s chemical plant corridor known as Rubbertown. Last year, she spoke to the Courier Journal about odors that drift into her neighborhood.
That's likely why she got the postcard. Why she keeps it is a different story, one tied up in Louisville’s complicated history of racial segregation, the wartime production of synthetic rubber and the toxic air pollution that continues today.
Louisville’s Toxic Legacy
It’s not a coincidence that environmental injustices like polluted air most often fall on disadvantaged communities, said Eboni Cochran, co-director of Rubbertown Emergency ACTion. Poor air quality is just one more form of inequality, she said.
“People in the neighborhoods that are affected by Rubbertown are also affected by so many other social injustices it’s overwhelming,” Cochran said. “Good economy always comes on the backs of black folks, it’s just how it is, and low-income folks.”
But over the last 14 years, Louisville has developed a program to work with the city’s toxic air polluters, and has made significant reductions as a result. Chemical, manufacturing and power plants have reduced toxic air pollution by 73 percent, according to the latest figures from the Air Pollution Control District.
That success is the result of community action in the West End. Figures like Reverend Louis Coleman Jr. advocated for and organized with concerned residents who found time between their day jobs, kids and hobbies. Together they attended meetings, learned about air pollution and made lasting change — a legacy that continues today.
The air pollution in west Louisville goes back generations. Standard Oil of Kentucky opened the Riverside Refinery along the banks of the Ohio River in the city in 1918.
Nearby, the area was largely rural. The closest residents lived in Chickasaw and Shawnee. They were mostly white and upper-class, according to Joshua Poe, a local urban planner and historian.
These residents were also the first to smell the pollution...and to complain about it. A complaint appeared in the 1930 Comprehensive Plan:
The report’s author was Harland Bartholomew, the country’s first full-time city planner and author of the racist city planning manifesto “The Negro Housing Problem in Louisville.”
Bartholomew recommended the city regulate the industry or move it northeast, but planners couldn't because of logistical issues, Poe said.
“So that sort of set in motion, the idea that instead of moving the industry to the northeast, we would just shift residential segregation patterns,” Poe said.
The system of zoning that began as explicitly racist in 1914, transformed into a system of coded language, Poe said.
“A blighted neighborhood means a neighborhood where black people live. Apartments became synonymous with black people, when they were talking about ‘adverse tenancy’ they were talking about black neighborhoods,” Poe said.
The Rise Of Rubbertown
Rubbertown rose to prominence during and after World War II. Fearing the Japanese would cut off supplies to the world’s largest rubber-producing countries, the federal government chose Louisville as the hub that would provide synthetic rubber for the war effort.
White families who worked at the factories were the first to build homes nearby. But after the war, Louisville’s racially segregating policies depressed home values in affluent, white neighborhoods like Shawnee.
“So if you’re a wealthy homeowner in Shawnee in the 30's, after World War II, your home value isn’t increasing as much, you’re experiencing the environmental impacts of living in that area with the wind and the soot, and then you look at Indian Hills, where the home prices were booming, and you think 'OK, well I’m going to move out there,'” Poe said.
An air quality study from 1956 found extremely high levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the ambient air around Rubbertown. White flight, meanwhile, persisted well through the 60's and 70's, pushing black families into the West End, Poe said.
Even as late as 2005, pollution from the facilities around Rubbertown contributed to an increased cancer risk for the community that was as high as 355 in a million, according to the Air Pollution Control District.
That means if one million people were exposed to this concentration continuously over 70 years, 355 would likely contract cancer from this exposure, according to the EPA.
But who moved in to the neighborhoods near Rubbertown, when and why, isn’t really important, said Lauren Heberle, a sociologist at the University of Louisville.
“That question is aimed at relieving the rest of us from taking responsibility for that disparate impact,” she said. “The companies should be held responsible for that because it’s not good for anybody.”
Reclaiming The Air
In the early 2000s, the University of Louisville and a coalition of residents called the West Jefferson County Community Task Force tested the air quality in neighborhoods around Rubbertown.
The two-year air toxics monitoring study that followed found 17 cancer-causing pollutants the community deemed unacceptably high, said Russ Barnett, the U of L researcher behind the study.
Around the same time, civil rights and social justice activist Reverend Louis Coleman Jr. established the Rubbertown Emergency ACTion, a group of local activists committed to non-violent demonstration in an effort to raise awareness about the pollution. They showed up at city meetings, protested industry permits and organized the community.
“Rev. Coleman’s job was he was going to be pushing for the same thing, but he’s doing it as an activist and he’s raising holy hell over it and he’s getting a lot of publicity for his protests,” Barnett said.
Not long after, in 2003, a resident named Eboni Cochran received a flyer on her door. Then another. Then another. After the third flyer, she cancelled dinner to attend her first REACT meeting. Today, she is the co-director.
Meanwhile Environment Reporter James Bruggers produced a number of front-page stories on air quality for the Courier Journal, furthering the political push.
“Jim won a national award for the result of these articles. I think he got $5,000 bucks. The son of a ***** never gave me a penny,” Barnett said with a laugh. “Now that you can quote me on.”
The newspaper publicity drove Mayor Jerry Mayor Abramson to meet with Rubbertown companies. As a result, American Synthetic Rubber Company agreed to install pollution controls that reduced emissions of one cancer-causing pollutant by 80 percent, Barnett said.
Ultimately, the study led the city’s air quality regulator, the Air Pollution Control District, to establish the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program, which set up local rules for toxic polluters.
The STAR program contributed to a 73 percent decrease in toxic air emissions between 2005 and 2017.
Coleman died in 2008, but today his legacy continues though community figures including Eboni Cochran, West Jefferson County Community Task Force Director Arnita Gadson and through task force members like Annie Haigler, who remains outspoken on issues that impact her community, in the face of opposition.
There’s been progress, but the toxic air pollution that remains still disproportionately impacts Haigler’s neighborhood, and others like it in west and south Louisville.
“It may mean that everyone needs to come to the table and that includes the person who called me a racist, it includes anybody. It doesn’t matter so long as we understand that my problem is also your problem,” Haigler said.
This is the third of several stories examining Louisville’s toxic air pollution and its disparate impacts. To read other stories in the series, click here.