Unequal: Who Are Louisville's Top Polluters?
Back in 2017, Evan King worked third shift as a security contractor at one of the largest air polluters in Jefferson County.
He got promoted to supervisor about six months after starting at Chemours, one of several facilities in Louisville’s chemical corridor known as Rubbertown. He said it wasn’t too bad, though the pay could have been better and there was always some lingering anxiety about working at a chemical plant.
“Especially with working third shift, there were definitely some unusual smells you would encounter most nights,” King said.
One odor that King said came from another nearby plant could get so bad, it would take his breath away. It smelled kind of like burnt garlic, he said. Some of King's co-workers
complained about headaches. He didn’t, but said he did experience some shortness of breath.
“I would never buy a house anywhere near Rubbertown. I can’t imagine the people living there are super healthy from all the chemicals that slip out eventually and the stuff that gets vented overnight,” King said.
From 2008 to 2017, the risks posed by toxic air pollution in Louisville were higher than U.S. median risks 69 percent of the time, according to a WFPL analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency's Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators.
More than 80 percent of the toxic air pollution released in 2017 was in west and south Louisville, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2017 Toxic Release Inventory, the most recent data available.
Louisville's toxic air pollution has decreased about two-thirds since a recent peak in 2005, but the cumulative risks of the pollution that remain disproportionately impact west and south Louisville.
Cancer rates are higher, life expectancy is lower and inpatient admissions for asthma in west Louisville are more than 10 times higher in certain ZIP codes than others in the East End, according to a study included in the 2017 Louisville Metro Health Equity Report.
“Black girls and black boys were the two highest being admitted in relation to asthma,” said Aja Barber, the administrator for the city's Center For Health Equity. “The further west you go, the higher those hospital admissions rates were.”
Barber said there is a clear connection. Some of the most adverse health outcomes appear in residents who are living near Rubbertown, she said. And the odors and the chemicals wafting over into nearby neighborhoods are just one of a number of social injustices that contribute to poor health outcomes. Other stresses include housing, education and transportation.
As a result, overall life expectancy is 12.6 years lower in some areas of the West End, according to the study.
Emissions By The Numbers
Sixty-eight facilities emitted a total of about 3.6 million pounds of toxic air pollution in Jefferson County in 2017, according to EPA data. That’s down from a 2005 high of 9.9 million pounds.
Still, four of the top five toxic air polluters are located in west and south Louisville, EPA records show.
These facilities released 79 different hazardous air pollutants in 2017, all of which can pose a threat to human health and the environment, according to the EPA.
Of those, at least 22 pollutants increase the risk of cancer; but they’re also associated with a variety of other adverse health impacts, according to the EPA.
Air toxics can affect immune, nervous and reproductive systems, and damage organs including the liver, kidney, lungs and heart. They can also cause more short-term impacts ranging from headaches and nausea to asthma attacks.
The Biggest Toxic Air Polluter In The County
The largest amount of toxic air pollution released in 2017 came from Chemours, a spin-off of DuPont. Most of that pollution came from one chemical: chlorodifluoromethane. It’s a refrigerant designed to replace a more harmful set of pollutants that contributed to the hole in the ozone layer, said Dan Costa, a retired senior EPA official.
The downside of that is the chemical has a greenhouse gas potential 1,800 times as powerful as carbon dioxide, fueling climate change, said Costa said.
“Every time you think you have a solution, there’s an unintended consequence you haven’t really thought of,” he said. “We find that with pretty much any of these industrial materials.”
The EPA lists the adverse health effects as impacting the body’s hormonal and renal (kidney) systems, but Costa said in his professional opinion, he’d be more worried about other pollutants.
“In terms of the public risk, these things are so light also, they immediately move up in the atmosphere, fairly high,” Costa said.
Production of the chemical has to cease by 2020, according to the EPA.
Chemours also releases other pollutants, including small amounts of more hazardous pollutants like chlorine and chloroform, according to 2017 EPA data. Chemours did not return multiple requests for comment.
According to the 2017 Toxic Release Inventory, the second largest emissions of toxic air pollution comes from the county’s only coal-fired power plant: Louisville Gas And Electric’s Mill Creek Generating Station. The plant sits along the Ohio River in the deep southwest corner of Jefferson County.
Mill Creek released about 850,000 pounds of toxic air pollutants in 2017, according to EPA records. That pollution spreads over the entire county, as the general prevailing winds blow from the southwest to the northeast.
Louisville Gas and Electric invested nearly $1 billion in equipment to control pollution coming out of the stacks at the Mill Creek Plant in 2012, significantly reducing major air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, which can cause acid rain, said LG&E spokesman Daniel Lowry.
“This is our community, this is where we live, this is part of the community we serve and so we’ve made a lot of investments to try to protect the air quality because we live here, too,” Lowry said.
About 711,000 pounds of that toxic air pollution comes from sulfuric acid, a mist created as a byproduct from new pollution controls. Sulfuric acid is corrosive. It’s also a defoliant (which means it strips the leaves from trees), but it’s still better than the sulfur dioxides the pollution controls are there to remove.
Still, former EPA official Dan Costa said sulfuric acid aggravates asthma. It also mixes with more harmful pollutants, making them more easily absorbed through the lungs and the bloodstream, he said.
At Mill Creek, the sulfuric acid could be dissolving other hazardous air pollutants the plant releases in small amounts, including cancer-causing pollutants like lead and arsenic, and neurotoxic pollutants like lead, Costa said.
“When you have sulfuric acid mixed in particulate matter, it actually makes other chemicals more bioavailable,” Costa said.
Mill Creek isn’t the only coal-fired plant in the immediate vicinity with emissions that impact Louisville. The Gallagher coal-fired power plant sits just across the river in Indiana, though Duke Energy plans on retiring it in the coming years.
LG&E also used to have a second coal-fired power plant in Louisville, but the company closed the coal units in 2015 and Cane Run Generating Station became the first natural gas combined cycle plant in Kentucky.
And In The East End
The Ford Kentucky Truck Plant, located off Chamberlain Lane, near Interstate 265 out in the far reaches of the eastern part of Jefferson County was the third largest emitter of toxic air pollution in 2017, according to EPA data.
The plant employs nearly 8,000 people and makes the F-250, Expedition and the Lincoln Navigator among other models, according to its website.
The largest amount of pollution came from “certain glycol ethers,” according to EPA records. These chemicals are often used as solvents. Chronic long-term exposure from some glycol ethers may cause “neurological and blood effects, including fatigue, nausea, tremor and anemia,” according to the EPA. The plant also emitted small amounts of the carcinogenic pollutant benzene, which is a common byproduct of combustion engines.
Ford did not return request for comment.
Other Pollution Sources
These polluters are not the only ones releasing toxic air pollution.
Much of the background concentration of toxic air pollution — even some cancer-causing pollutants — come from combustion engines in our airplanes, trains, cars and lawn mowers.
Other sources of toxic air pollution include auto body shops, dry cleaners and gas stations. But all of these things mixing together in the outdoor air might not even be the highest risk we face.
And outside air isn’t the only problem: emerging science indicates that indoor air quality could be an equal, or perhaps greater risk, to human health, according to Russ Barnett, an air pollution researcher at University of Louisville.
“I’m currently telling people when they ask me ‘Where’s the worst place to live in Louisville?’ and the answer is your house, that’s where the highest concentration of these chemicals are,” Barnett said.
Barnett said it’s also worth considering the limits to our understanding. For example, the information on multi-pollutant interactions is extremely limited, according to interviews with scientists and air pollution experts.
And in west Louisville, Barnett said it’s important to consider all of the different sources of toxic air pollution, not just the largest sources.
“That’s partly because of the concentration of the heavy manufacturing, what’s left of it, and the chemical companies, and partly the result of the traffic we’ve got,” Barnett said. “We do have problems in west Louisville, but again a lot of that is also created by that fact that we have three power plants in the western part of this county.”
This is the fourth of several stories examining Louisville’s toxic air pollution and its disparate impacts. To read other stories in the series, click here.
This post has been updated.