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Louisville odor regulations could get weaker after agreement with Swift Pork Company

Street art reading "see historic odors" is painted on wood covering a window on the side of a brick building.
Ryan Van Velzer
Swift Pork Company has agreed to pay $44,250 for violations spanning from 2018 to 2021, according to a mediation agreement between APCD and the meat processor.

On Wednesday, a Louisville board that oversees air quality regulations could vote to change odor rules that affect the entire city as part of a mediation agreement with Swift Pork Company.

Louisville air pollution regulators allege one of the world’s largest pork processing companies has been violating Louisville’s odor regulations for years, but now it’s the city’s rules that are on the chopping block.

The Swift Pork Company in Butchertown has agreed to pay more than $44,000 in fines for violating dozens of regulations designed to minimize odors, according to data acquired by LPM News through an open records request.

Slaughtering hogs is a smelly business. Complaints about the last pork processing plant in Butchertown begin with the smell of fresh feces wafting off the trucks hauling the livestock. From there, it gets more complex.

“Sometimes it smells rancid, sometimes it smells burnt, but when it smells like bleach and those things, that’s when it really messes with us,” said Kyle Jahn, who lives near the plant.

A snapshot of the smell complaints shows the Swift Pork Company has amassed around 500 odor complaints since July of 2019, according to a Louisville Public Media analysis of Louisville Air Pollution Control District (APCD) records.

The smells floating over the fence line at 1200 Story Avenue are nothing new for the company or the community. Butchertown is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Louisville, and residents have long shared the air with meat processing plants.

As recently as 2017, Swift Pork Company agreed to pay $118,500 for odor issues alleged to have stemmed from the plant, according to the Courier Journal. Over the years, Swift Pork Company has updated their equipment and improved maintenance to help minimize odors, according to air pollution regulators at the APCD.

But in the four years following Swift’s last agreement, regulators found the Swift Pork Company violated dozens of rules designed to limit odors in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Regulators found the company frequently failed to perform odor surveys or monitor and record readings on odor-control equipment. Swift self-reported some violations, regulators found others and responded to community complaints.

“Part of these notices of violations is on records they didn’t keep, things that are there to control the odor,” said Steve Gravatte, APCD industrial compliance manager. “We allege they didn’t maintain their plant and operate their plant appropriately to control those odors.”

Now, Swift Pork Company has agreed to pay $44,250 for violations spanning from 2018 to 2021, according to a mediation agreement between APCD and the meat processor. The parties agreed nothing in the mediation should be considered an admission of guilt or liability.

Swift Pork’s parent company, JBS USA, did not return repeated calls for comment. JBS is one the world’s largest meat processing companies, earning nearly $46 billion in 2021. Swift did not immediately return a request for comment.

As part of the mediation agreement, Louisville’s air quality regulators decided to revise the city’s odor regulations. The words in bold are the proposed changes:

“No person shall emit or cause to be emitted into the ambient air such quantities of air contaminants or other material that creates an objectionable odor beyond the person’s property line. An odor will be deemed objectionable when documented investigation by the District includes, as a minimum: observations on the odor's nature, intensity, duration, and location, and evidence that the odor causes substantial injury, detriment, nuisance, or annoyance to any considerable number of persons, or to the public.”

  • “Such quantities of air contaminants or other material” changed from “any substance”
  • “Substantial” added before the word “injury”
  • “Any considerable number of” added before the word “persons”

APCD said Swift had no part in drafting the proposed revisions, but that the company supports them, according to a regulatory impact assessment. Regulators say the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office drafted the language to reflect current practices and make the rules more in line with state common law regarding public nuisances, records show.

“The District respectfully believes that the proposal does align with the full intent and scope of the statute, and will not make enforcement more difficult,” APCD said in response to comments on the rule.

Louisville Environmental Attorney Randy Strobo said the proposed language will make it harder to hold polluters accountable.

“This makes it more difficult, no question,” he said.

Strobo said environmental regulations are supposed to prevent harm from happening in the first place, not after “substantial” harm happens.

“It invites polluters to see how far they can push it, rather than focusing on preventing the emissions of noxious odors. On top of that, ‘considerable number of persons’ and ‘substantial’ are not defined,” he said.

The city’s own FAQ on the proposed regulation notes that odor issues tend to disproportionately impact residents who live near Rubbertown and in Butchertown.

“This proposal will hurt those who live next to facilities that produce noxious odors, and will likely have a negative impact on their property values, particularly in those communities,” Strobo said.

Louisville’s Air Pollution Control Board meetsWednesday at 10 a.m. to accept public comment on the odor rule before voting on it. The board is the regulatory authority for Louisville Metro and is comprised of private citizens appointed by the mayor and approved by Metro Council.

Jennifer Grove has lived in Butchertown for 22 years. She’s concerned the new language could result in less public participation.

“If they change this wording to make it more ambiguous, that just draws everything out until interest fades or people are fooled into thinking everything is resolved,” Grove said.

Butchertown resident Oliver Casey said he doesn’t support loosening the regulations in a way that would make it more difficult to regulate odors, but has mixed feelings about the role that Swift plays in the neighborhood.

Casey said he was aware of what he was getting into when he moved to the neighborhood, and that the company is a source of good-paying jobs.

“I can’t say it disrupts my life, but it would be nice if it didn’t smell like s***,” Casey said.

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

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