Heavy industry and sewer odors disrupt life in West End neighborhoods
The odors come and go, but in the sultry summer months of Louisville they cling to the air, ruining backyard barbecues and porch-side visits. For Cory Johnson, who lives in Park DuValle, it’s not just that it smells bad. It’s that he doesn’t know if he’s inhaling something harmful.
“You never really know what it’s doing because it’s got like a sting after you inhale it,” Johnson said. “I feel like it’s hazardous and it’s hurting people.”
Louisville is no stranger to smells. It’s an older city with sewer pipes that, in some places, date back to the years after the Civil War. There’s the pungent smell of JBS Foods slaughtering pigs, the flotsam in the backwaters of the Ohio River, distilleries fermenting mash and chemical plants releasing toxic fumes.
But some communities have to hold their nose more than others.
Unlike any other city in Kentucky, Louisville has its own air pollution regulators, the Air Pollution Control District (APCD). They enforce permits for industrial polluters, monitor air quality and investigate community odor complaints.
In May, APCD released a map visualizing odor service requests across the city from 2020 through 2021. These requests represent APCD investigations into peoples’ odor complaints, and each one can include multiple reports.
Typically, investigators opened a median of five investigations into Louisville ZIP codes over the two-year window, but one ZIP code had far more odor service requests than any other: 40211.
APCD opened 116 investigations into odor complaints in 40211. Most fall into two categories: sewer and chemical smells.
“I can tell. I can tell,” Johnson said when he learned his own ZIP code was the worst. “Because you can smell it from a distance.”
Louisville’s 40211 sits on the western edge of the city, flanked by the Ohio River. It includes the neighborhoods of Parkland, Chickasaw, Park Duvalle and parts of Shawnee and Russell, according to U.S. Census data. It’s also home to two Olmsted parks, the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant, petroleum facilities and chemical manufacturers.
The stench in this part of this city disproportionately impacts people of color. 40211 is home to more than 22,000 people, 93% of whom are Black. It’s also an area with higher levels of poverty than the city’s average.
Johnson’s grandmother lives on the Algonquin Parkway on the other side of the interstate from the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant, Marathon Oil Algonquin and the industrial chemical corridor known as Rubbertown.
“There’s a lot of older people in the neighborhood, and you know, no telling what it’s actually doing for their health since they are older, or what it's doing to the younger [people] who are growing and inhaling for years and years,” Johnson said.
Sometimes it smells sweet, other times like burning plastic or garlic. Some neighbors reported headaches, others said the odors burn their nostrils.
At least 39 of the odor investigations into 40211 related to chemical smells like in the complaint above. Much of these chemical odors waft into the neighborhoods from Rubbertown — the industrial corridor named for the companies that supplied synthetic rubber for the war effort during World War II.
Today, Rubbertown remains the home of heavy industry including American Synthetic Rubber Company, Valero, Zeon Chemical, Carbide Industries and Lubrizol Advanced Materials.
At least eight industrial polluters released toxic air emissions in 40211 in 2020, according to the EPA. Some of that pollution increases the risk of cancer and other maladies like asthma, for those who live nearby.
But each company is still legally allowed to increase the cancer risk for the area by as much as 7.5 in a million — meaning if 1 million people were exposed to this concentration continuously for 70 years, at least seven people would likely develop cancer from the exposure.
But there is no correlation between how much something stinks and how bad it is for you.
“That’s part of that stressor for folks is smelling and not knowing if that’s a health impact,” said Michelle King, APCD executive administrator and director of program planning.
APCD decided to make the odor map to increase transparency and reflect the community’s experience, King said.
“We’ve done the best we can. We’ve tried to think about how people would want to look at that, over time, in certain ZIP codes, that kind of thing,” she said.
Sometimes in 40211, it smells like “burnt greens,” and “rotten eggs.” These odors indicate the presence of hydrogen sulfide, a flammable, colorless gas that naturally occurs in sewage.
It doesn’t take much of it to notice the stench; and even at low concentrations it can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, drowsiness and it can exacerbate asthma, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
APCD investigated even more sewer odors in 40211 than the chemicals from Rubbertown — 48 over two years, according to the Metropolitan Sewer District.
Similar to 40211’s proximity to Rubbertown, its geography is in part to blame. The ZIP code sits in the lowest elevation of the city’s combined sewer system.
MSD built the Morris Forman wastewater treatment plant along the Ohio River in 40211 in the late 1950’s for this very reason. That way gravity could do most of the work moving the sewage from one side of the city to the other.
As a result, 40211 deals with a larger volume of sewage in its system. It’s also older sewage; the more time it spends in the system, the worse the smell becomes, said Brian Bingham, MSD chief operations officer.
The state’s largest wastewater treatment facility also brings its own odors. The facility has uncovered areas and “solids” handling that creates odors, though MSD has spent around $75 million on improvements at the treatment plant over about the last seven years, Bingham said.
“I mean the plant was originally built in the 50s, expanded in the 70s, updated in the 90s, 2000s, 2010s,” he said. “But we still have a lot more work to do.”
And there’s another issue too. MSD has identified more than 1,000 untrapped catch basins in West End neighborhoods. These basins are supposed to have water traps that keep odors from rising up from the sewers, like the pipes under a kitchen sink.
Some of these basins 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.
“What we really need to do is keep hearing from people when and where the odors are,” Bingham said.
The sewer district is well aware of the problems. Former Courier Journal reporter Jim Bruggers documented the complaints in 2018. Last August, former KyCIR reporter Lily Burris reported on six years of sewer smells complaints.
This summer MSD plans to begin working on catch basins and other odor issues around Park Duvalle and other neighborhoods near the wastewater treatment plant, Bingham said.
“Our goal is that at some point someone will say you know I haven't smelled that in a long long time, we’re not there yet but we’ve made tremendous strides,” he said.
Arnita Gadson is from 40211 and has spent a great deal of time thinking about environmental issues in the West End. She’s the executive director of West Jefferson County Community Task Force and the state environmental justice representative for the NAACP.
The odors in 40211 are an example of an environmental injustice because it disproportionately affects people with lower incomes and people of color, she said.
“We’ve been trying to sit down with folks and say what in the world can we do about the odors?” Gadson said.
Her idea is to strengthen the odor ordinance that’s already on the books. Right now, the rules prohibit nuisance odors, but Gadson would like to see a definition that incorporates environmental health.
District 3 Council Member Keisha Dorsey has been pushing for more funding to go toward remediating the odors in West End neighborhoods, but she’s fed up with officials telling the community to continually report odor issues when the problem is already well understood.
“We know where the odors are coming from,” she said. “But why ask people to continue to report something when we already have the evidence that says this is what’s happening.”
Dorsey said it’s up to local government to inform residents that they have been heard and explain how they plan to resolve the issues.
Dorsey is now working on an initiative she’s calling “Air Justice” with the University of Louisville. They’ll work with community members, local government, academics and industry experts to find ways to improve air quality in the city.
“There are a lot of environmental concerns happening in and around West Louisville but we are talked at, not talked to,” Dorsey said.
In the meantime, heavy industry isn’t going anywhere, sewage will keep flowing and the summer is just beginning.