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Louisville chemical company asks for permit allowing increased toxic air emissions

The human health risks posed by the Clariant Specialty Chemicals facility on 12th Street are more than 10,000 times higher than the industry average, according to the EPA.
The human health risks posed by the Clariant Specialty Chemicals facility on 12th Street are more than 10,000 times higher than the industry average, according to the EPA.

A Louisville-based chemical company with a history of environmental violations has applied for a permit that would allow it to slightly increase the cancer risk for the surrounding community.

The company, Clariant Corporation, manufactures catalysts that accelerate chemical reactions. It's located in the Park Hill neighborhood near 12th and West Oak streets.

In June, the company applied for a permit with the Louisville Air Pollution Control District, the city’s air pollution regulators, to replace older equipment. Clariant’s new equipment would have the potential to increase air emissions of harmful pollutants including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and hexavalent chromium -- a known carcinogen made famous by the film and activist of the same name, Erin Brockovich.

Clariant currently poses the highest human health risk of the 89 facilities that release toxic air emissions in Jefferson County, according to the EPA. In a statement, a company spokesperson said the new equipment will improve the flexibility of its operations during maintenance, which only takes place approximately two weeks per year. As a result, the company said it’s committed to complying with its previous total cancer risk goal of 1 in a million.

Louisville residents can publicly comment and request a hearing on the permit through August 15. 

“We certainly understand that to most, if not all of the neighbors, they don’t want to see any increase and really, would like to see a decrease,” said Matt King, APCD industrial permitting manager. “The Clean Air Act was really set up to allow for expansions and increases without an obligation to reduce emissions.”

The permit would allow Clariant to increase the cancer risk for the surrounding community at its 12th street plant from about 1.3 to 2.07 in a million. That means, if one million people were exposed to this concentration continuously for 70 years, two of them would likely contract cancer from this exposure, based on APCD’s cancer risk assessment. 

Nearby facility emissions combined with mobile sources like cars and airplanes, increase the total cancer risk to around 32 in a million for those same neighborhoods around Clariant (without the new permit levels). This area has among the highest increased cancer in the state, according to an EPA environmental justice report.

Approximately 15,000 people live within one mile of the facility in Clariant’s permit request. Nearly two-thirds of them are Black. At least 68% percent of those living nearby qualify as low-income.

Violations and fines 

Over the last seven years, Clariant has paid $558,000 in fines for nearly a dozen violations including the release of visible plumes of nitrogen oxides, which can cause acid rain. 

The company had until June to pay nearly $500,000 for its most recent violations, which included failing to comply with “numerous permit conditions related to maintenance, inspection, recording, reporting, calculating and general rules of operation,” according to the APCD agreed board order

However, Clariant’s history of violations has no bearing on APCD’s decision to issue the permit so long as the business continues to remedy its violations and pay its fines. 

“Permitting is not the tool to correct violations,” King said. “But there are ways where violations could impact permit issuance, certainly with ongoing, known, currently unfixed excess emissions, we would be really reluctant to consider a new permit.”

The public can use the comment period to study the permit and catch mistakes that APCD might have made such as calculating the wrong limit or missing a requirement. King said he recognizes that is an incredibly difficult task for a regular person. 

But all comments would be added to the public record, made available to APCD’s board and could help to drive future discussions about emissions limits, he said. 

APCD legally allows facilities to increase the cancer risk by as much as one in a million for each pollutant they release or 7.5 in a million for all of the pollutants released at a facility.

APCD regulates Clariant and companies like it through the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program, which works with companies to address toxic air pollution. Since the program began in 2005, toxic pollution has dropped around 70%, according to APCD’s website. 

For example, the city’s chemical facility corridor known as Rubbertown had an increased cancer risk as high as 355 in a million as recently as 2005, according to APCD. However, the STAR program, which only came to exist because of community advocacy, that risk dropped to a high of 12 in a million.

Louisville residents can publicly comment and request a hearing on the permit through August 15. 

This story has been updated with a statement from Clariant Corporation.

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

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