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Data shows improvements in air quality in Louisville’s Rubbertown

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working with the city of Louisville to develop novel technology measuring toxic air pollution from Rubbertown -- the city’s industrial corridor. Five years later, they’ve got the first full year of results.

Downwind from the smokestacks and factories of Rubbertown, across the street from a cluster of Marathon petroleum storage tanks, there’s an odd-looking trailer sprouting contraptions that look a bit like weather vanes.

Inside, there’s a machine the EPA considers cutting edge technology. This automated gas chromatograph, or auto gc, measures toxics in outdoor air with much greater frequency compared to the standard approaches, which sample periodically over several days.

Over the din of the machine, air chemist Andrea Cooley explained how it captures and burns volatile organic compounds taken from the ambient air.

“So the way that the VOCs are detected is you basically combust them, and when they get combusted it generates ions, which is a charged particle and we can detect those as a peak,” said Cooley, who works with the Louisville Air Pollution Control District, or, APCD.

Cooley has spent the last few years training the auto gc to look at around 60 different toxic compounds found in Louisville’s air. She and her colleagues chose the location on Algonquin Parkway specifically so they could see how emissions from Rubbertown are impacting nearby neighborhoods.

Rubbertown is the industrial heart of Louisville, abutting the Ohio River to the west, and a diverse collection of neighborhoods to the east. The area got its name from the synthetic rubber industry that arose in the area during World War II.

Today, companies including Zeon Chemicals, American Synthetic Rubber Co. and Chemours continue to release toxic air pollution as a byproduct. The EPA characterizes the nearby neighborhoods as an environmental justice community. Many of the residents are low-income, many are people of color.

“Today’s picture is a summary of a lot of past practices: from land use planning and lack thereof, to some very intentional racism,” said APCD director of program planning Michelle King.

Residents test the air, learn the cancer risk 

Back in the early 2000’s, Louisville Metro, the EPA and residents known as the West Jefferson County Community Task Force conducted an air monitoring study to learn if people living nearby Rubbertown were exposed to unhealthy concentrations of toxic air pollution.

It was an ambitious study, and by 2006 they had found a median cumulative cancer risk as high as 155 in a million at the Algonquin Parkway site where the auto gc is now located. That’s how many people were expected to get cancer from breathing the air over the course of 70 years.

The study resulted in the creation of the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction, or STAR, program. The way it works is that APCD issues permits to companies limiting their emissions of toxic air pollution. The companies report their emissions to APCD and officials then verify that data. Read our story about the Swift Pork Company in Butchertown to see how this works in practice.

There has not been another study the size and scope of the West Louisville Air Toxics study in Louisville since it was released 17 years ago. APCD officials say they hope to change that using the auto gc.

“What we would like to do is another West Louisville Air Toxics-type study so we would have that same sort of apples to apples comparison to what was previously done,” said APCD Director Rachael Hamilton.

Calibrating the auto gc

APCD first installed the auto gc on Algonquin Parkway in 2017. Since then, Cooley has been working with the EPA to fine tune the machine, which continuously measures the air for toxic pollution.

But it’s not easy. For the last few years, APCD has been ironing out the kinks in the system and overcoming challenges including things like changes in weather and humidity. Now, more than five years after installing the system, they have a year’s worth of data.

Industrial permitting manager Matt King says it shows improvements in air quality when compared to the West Louisville Air Toxics study of 2006.

“These preliminary results show a significant reduction to the chemicals and the risk they pose,” King said. “But it also has shown with comparisons to other areas, the Rubbertown area is still not unexpectedly likely our highest cancer and non-cancer health affected area.”

Data from the auto gc can’t can’t exactly replicate the two studies. LPM News analyzed some of the chemicals that posed the highest risk back then and compared them to what’s in the air now.

In the 2006 study, those chemicals posed a risk of about 83 in a million. Today, APCD says that risk is about 11 in a million for those same chemicals.

The chemical that continues to drive risk in the neighborhoods around Rubbertown is 1,3 Butadiene -- a colorless gas with a gasoline-type odor that is used in the production of synthetic rubber.

“One year of data is showing a risk of about 7 in a million. The west Louisville study median risk was 57 [in a million] from the 2000 to 2001 period. So significant reduction, but still higher than we would want to see that,” Matt King said.

The auto gc also found that another historical chemical of concern, vinyl chloride, has seen noticeable reductions. Matt King said one company, Oxy Vinyls (formerly B.F. Goodrich), used that chemical, but left after the passage of the STAR program.

Zoning, land use changes and future studies 

Despite these reductions, APCD acknowledges there is still more toxic air pollution in the West End than other parts of Louisville because of these companies. And the burden of this pollution is more likely – both here and across the country – to fall on impoverished people, and people of color.

EPA data shows that 58% of those who live within three miles of the air monitoring site on Algonquin Parkway are low income; 82% are people of color.

But APCD officials said there are also challenges that go beyond what they can control. After all, it’s land use, zoning and development decisions that first allowed heavy industry to exist adjacent to residential communities.

Hamilton, with APCD, said the city should consider how it can use land zoning to undo some of these bad, past practices and avoid future complications.

“We do have a responsibility. That is part and parcel of our work. And it’s also part of work to work collaboratively with others to make sure we are rowing in the same direction,” Hamilton said.

APCD said it will have an even better understanding of the differences in air quality between the West End and the rest of the city in the coming years, once similar data comes in from a second auto gc placed at Cannons Lane.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.