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Louisville ranks 3rd in U.S. for most premature deaths from coal-fired power pollution

Smoke emits from the stacks at LG&E's Mill Creek Power Plant, with a residential street in the foreground.
Ryan Van Velzer
Mill Creek Generating Station is a coal-fired power plant in Valley Station.

Jefferson County, Kentucky, had the country’s third highest number of premature deaths due to particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants, according to a new report from the Sierra Club.

The smokestacks at Louisville Gas and Electric’s Mill Creek coal-fired power plant in southeast Jefferson County tower over the neighborhood of Valley Village. Residents say they often wake up to soot covering their homes and vehicles.

“I know it's hard on my lungs or whatever, but I’ve worked my whole life around asbestos as an insulator,” Michael Fitz said. “I know it’s hard on your cars, your roof.”

The soot particles visible to the human eye are huge compared to the fine particle pollution the plants emit from their stacks. And those particles, smaller than the width of a human hair, can travel hundreds of miles, increasing the risk of asthma, heart and lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks and premature death for people in their path.

A new report from the Sierra Club, titled “Out of Control: The Deadly Impact of Coal Pollution,” explores the impacts of fine particle pollution from the nation’s remaining coal-fired power plants.

Sierra Club researchers estimated the pollution from the country's remaining coal plants are responsible for 3,800 premature deaths each year, based on 2019 data provided by the Clean Air Task Force and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“What we found is a lot of the plants in the Midwest or areas like Kentucky. A lot of their pollution will be really spread out to really populous areas like, for example, the Ohio River Valley,” said report lead author Daniel Prull.

Jefferson County ranked third in the country for the most premature deaths behind counties in Pennsylvania and Illinois, according to the data.

The report found coal-fired power plants are responsible for 43 premature deaths each year in Jefferson County, and that Mill Creek Generating Station is the highest contributing plant in the region. The findings didn’t surprise Fitz.

“Everybody’s making a killing on their end, you know, and we’re just out here, we’ve got to pay what they tell us. What else can you do?” Fitz said. “I mean everything’s going to kill you sooner or later.”

LG&E and KU Spokesperson Liz Pratt said the company did not read the report before responding, but had serious questions about its methodology and “outlandish” claims.

“We strongly disagree with the claims being portrayed,” Pratt said. “Our data – which demonstrates we are in compliance with all regulations and is reported to our local, state and federal regulators – supports this.”

The role of fine particulate matter in premature deaths is well established. That emissions from coal-fired power plants produce large amounts of particulate matter is also well understood. The Sierra Club’s analysis models total emissions from a given plant as well as wind patterns and population density to estimate the number of premature deaths that occur annually.

The majority of Kentucky’s electricity still comes from coal, but pollution control equipment and coal plant retirements have improved Louisville’s air quality over time.

For example, LG&E and KU have invested more than $1.8 billion at Mill Creek and Ghent generating stations to add additional emissions controls to remove sulfur dioxides and control mercury and fine particle pollution.

The Louisville region’s seen approximately a 40% decline in fine particle pollution in the last two decades, said Byron Gary, regulatory coordinator with the city air pollution regulators at the Louisville Air Pollution Control District.

“Cane Run converted to natural gas, the Gallagher plant shut down and there have been even further upwind changes that I couldn’t even begin to tell you all of them,” Gary said. “We’ve seen a lot of improvement both locally and regionally.”

The role of Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities

Two LG&E and KU plants and one Tennessee Valley Authority plant make Sierra Club’s list for the most deadly remaining coal-fired power plants:

  • Shawnee Generating Station in McCracken County, owned by TVA, is responsible for 154 premature deaths each year, but the most affected county is Cook County, Illinois. 
  • Ghent Generating Station in Carroll County is responsible for 95 premature deaths each year. 
  • Mill Creek Generating Station in Jefferson County is responsible for 66 premature deaths each year.  

LG&E and KU’s parent company PPL ranked second among Sierra Club’s list of “most deadly parent companies” behind the Tennessee Valley Authority. However, LG&E and KU are the only PPL utility that’s still burning fossil fuels for power generation.
“It is suspicious that our company, a mid-sized utility and one of the only utilities in the country to implement pulse-jet fabric filter control technology on all units, is ranked number two in the aggregate on any such list,” Pratt said.

The state’s largest power company plans to retire Mill Creek generating unit 1 in 2024 and unit 2 in 2028. They’re also planning to retire Ghent generating unit 2 in 2027 and E.W. Brown unit 3 in 2028.

In the meantime, LG&E and KU have asked utility regulators for permission to build two more natural gas-combined cycle power plants, which Pratt says emits 65% less carbon dioxide than coal.

“The proposed portfolio creates a sustainable clean energy transition and would decrease our carbon emissions by nearly 25% from existing levels, and is consistent with our long-term goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” Pratt said.

Prull with the Sierra Club said Mill Creek Generating Station was an unusual case compared to other plants the study looked at. He found that despite pollution controls, Mill Creek was in the top 30 coal plants for direct emissions of fine particle pollution because more than 800,000 people live within 20 miles of the plant.

“Our analysis (using EPA tools and data) shows that half of the premature deaths from Mill Creek occur in Jefferson County. While it has modern pollution controls installed, they are insufficient to protect the health of those living nearby,” Prull wrote in an email.

Activists, neighbors respond

Residents of Valley Village have been dealing with the impacts of living beside the power plant for decades.

Before LG&E added pollution controls on Mill Creek, Louisville’s Air Pollution Control District recorded dozens of complaints of blue and brown plumes of sulfuric acid mist emanating from Mill Creek Station between 2012 and 2015.

Residents reported sulfuric stenches, “pickle odor,” throat irritation and difficulty breathing. Ultimately LG&E and KU agreed to pay a $750,000 penalty for emitting high levels of sulfuric acid mist into communities surrounding the plant as the result of a switch to burning coal with a high sulfur content.

These days, resident Anthony Estill says he and his friends in their early 20s are all developing similar health issues.

“Like having trouble breathing and coughing. Our noses get stopped up and stuff like that. We don’t know what to point the direction in, but it has something to do with these, what do you call these? Smokestacks,” Estill said.

Rubbertown Emergency Action Co-director Eboni Cochran has spent decades fighting against polluters in Louisville’s industrial corridor known as Rubbertown. She says LG&E’s promises may have the potential to save lives and improve health outcomes, but it’s meaningless unless action is taken quickly.

“Impacted communities have had to bear unimaginable costs to their health, education, work stability and household income,” Cochran said. “It's now time for industry to bear their burden. Impacted communities need tangible fixes, not promises and announcements with no effective action.”

Katherine Smith with the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition said power companies need to think about the communities they serve over the profits they make. A healthier future is possible if they step up, invest in sustainable alternatives and stop treating communities as “sacrifice zones,” they said.

“To know the decision makers at these companies are raking in money while thousands of people are dying prematurely is unjust, criminal, and honestly just disgusting,” Smith said.

This story has been corrected to reflect data about the impact of Shawnee Generating Station in Cook County, Illinois.

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

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