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Council member calls for action on West End sewer smells

James Krebs, a utility worker with MSD, cleans a catch basin on 42nd Street.
James Krebs, a utility worker with MSD, cleans a catch basin on 42nd Street.

Democratic Council Member Keisha Dorsey wants to know why it has taken so long for the city to take action on the foul smells emanating from the sewers in neighborhoods in West Louisville. 

Dorsey represents District 3, which includes part of Park DuValle, where, for years, the fragrance of rotten eggs has permeated city streets and homes. 

The council member actually describes the smell as more pungent than rotten eggs, so bad that some residents have trouble sleeping and others have chosen to sell their homes. Former Courier Journal reporter Jim Bruggers documented the complaints in 2018. In August, KyCIR reported on six years of sewer smells complaints. 

By 2019, MSD had logged 221 customer requests to manage the smells in five West End neighborhoods including Shawnee, California, Chickasaw and Taylor Berry. But as of October, an MSD House Appropriations Committee funding request shows the Metropolitan Sewer District had not yet taken system-wide action on one of the major culprits: untrapped sewer catch basins.

“Why did it take us until 2019 to identify an issue that these residents have continued to hail as their number one priority in that community? Why did it take us this long?” Dorsey asks.

MSD is set to give a presentation to a Metro Council subcommittee on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. discussing odor control efforts in West and Central Louisville. 

MSD Chief Operations Officer Brian Bingham told WFPL News that as long as he can remember MSD has attempted to fix the catch basins associated with the largest number of complaints, though he acknowledged that they haven't fixed as many as the community wanted. 

MSD has spent the better part of two decades under a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to stop sewer overflows. Officials say the consent decree has often limited the actions MSD could take in making critical repairs and improvements that didn’t prioritize sewer overflows. 

Now, having renegotiated the consent decree, Bingham says MSD will be focusing its resources on its largest problems. Making repairs at Morris Forman and fixing untrapped catch basins in Park DuValle are two of the problems on that list.

“We are certainly interested in alleviating the odor problems and we are dedicating more and more resources each year,” Bingham said. “What we are trying to do is look at the whole thing and come up with what is the component or components we can construct this year to make things better.”

Smells Rising From The Sewers

There are around 30,000 catch basins designed to capture stormwater in Louisville’s combined sewer system, which exists mostly inside Interstate 264. These basins are supposed to have water traps that keep smells from rising out of the sewers, kind of like the pipes under a kitchen sink. Some don’t have water traps at all. Others can get stagnant during hot, dry weather. That’s because parts of the combined sewer system date back to the Civil War era, long before cities were thinking about things like trapping sewer smells.  

The stench is also worse in West End neighborhoods, which sits in the lowest elevation in the combined sewer system. In fact, back in the 1950s, MSD decided to build the Morris Forman Water Quality Treatment Center in the West End beside the Ohio River for that reason. That way gravity could do the bulk of the work in getting sewage to the treatment center.

So these neighborhoods are dealing with a larger amount of sewage that's been in the system longer, and are also dealing with the smells from the treatment center itself and the city’s chemical industry corridor known as Rubbertown

On top of that, an April report from MSD identified 1,043 untrapped catch basins among the five West End neighborhoods, according to the House Appropriations Committee funding request.

The sour smells are a quality of life issue even in small amounts. In large enough concentrations, the chemical behind the smell can be detrimental to people’s health. The smell comes from hydrogen sulfide, a flammable, colorless gas that naturally occurs when bacteria break down organic matter.  

It only takes a small amount of the chemical to notice the smell. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says exposure to low concentrations can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, drowsiness and may exacerbate asthma. 

Asthma is already a known issue in the West End and is likely due to a confluence of systemic issues including poverty, health and environmental quality. A 2017 study from Louisville Metro Health and Wellness found the highest rates of asthma in Jefferson County are in West End neighborhoods that include the areas around the Morris Forman treatment center. 

Bingham of MSD said he doesn’t believe the levels of hydrogen sulfide are dangerous, though he admits it’s outside his area of expertise. 

Funding Sewer Fixes

The cost to fix the catch basins in Park DuValle amounts to $630,000, and $6 million for all five neighborhoods, according to the funding request. That’s a relatively small sum compared to the $350 million MSD plans to spend in the coming years to fix system-wide issues.

Regardless, Bingham said MSD has dedicated more and more resources each year to odor mitigation, and believes that MSD has dramatically reduced odor issues across the city over the last two decades.  

He also said MSD plans to spend more than $6 million on odor issues, but it’s complicated. Fixing the untrapped basins on their own likely won’t be enough, and there might be other projects that would reduce the odor issues in certain areas more than fixing catch basins. On top of that, MSD has to figure out how to fix all the problems system-wide without making it unaffordable for ratepayers. 

“That may make some people happy and it may not make everybody happy, but our goal ultimately is to reduce odors as much as we can across the board for everybody and we have a specific emphasis on West Louisville because we know that is one of our biggest odor problem areas,” he said.  

Council Member Dorsey sees a window of opportunity to fix this issue in the coming months. She pointed to Mayor Greg Fischer’s declaration that racism is a public health crisis, and said, because of COVID, there are now American Rescue Plan funds available to address the odor inequities in West Louisville neighborhoods.  

“We have listened to folks after a year of upheaval and protests in the city talk about inequities and we have one right in front of us that we aren’t addressing,” Dorsey said. 


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

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