Louisville’s Toxic Air Monitoring Program Stalls Amid Loss of Funding

A program to monitor toxic air pollutants in Louisville was suspended months ago, and future funding remains uncertain.

The program was run out of the University of Louisville by Russ Barnett of the Kentucky Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development. Unlike the city’s air monitors, which measure pollutants like ozone and particle pollution, Barnett’s equipment monitored volatile organic compounds. Toxic VOCs are emitted from vehicles and industries, and have been shown to negatively affect human health.

But after a “perfect storm” of the loss of laboratory space and the retirement of a longtime employee, Barnett stopped monitoring in November. 

Funding for the monitoring program has dwindled in recent years. The program was run on more than $300,000 in federal funds until 2002; after aid ran out, it operated on $150,000 in state money. But in 2009, funding was further reduced. Last year, Barnett ran the program on $84,000.

Barnett had also asked for funding from the Air Pollution Control District’s Air Quality Trust Fund to supplement the state funds. He said he worked out an agreement with former APCD Executive Director Lauren Anderson, but Anderson left amid agency turmoil last fall

Barnett said the arrangement never came to fruition. APCD spokesman Tom Nord said he had no knowledge of an agreement to funnel trust fund money to Barnett’s monitoring program, and the board never voted on the matter.

Now, Barnett is working to reassemble his laboratory in space at the U of L’s Health Sciences Center. He said he’s working on securing funding for next year, but the program’s future is far from certain. And Barnett said as long as there are still health risks posed by VOCs, the monitoring is necessary.

“Over the years we have made a lot of progress with some chemicals,” he said. “We haven’t made any progress with other chemicals. Our benzene levels have pretty much been the same all along. We also have a lot of chemicals that we don’t know a lot about.

“Acrolein, for example—we’re just learning more about the association between exposure to acrolein and cardiovascular disease. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t even on our radar list.”

The Air Pollution Control District hasn’t funded toxics monitoring in the past, and the agency doesn’t have the resources to start now. Nord said the APCD sees the benefits of monitoring for chemicals like benzene and butadiene in Louisville’s air, but it’s not something the agency feels is essential to regulating the pollutants.

“It’s not like we don’t know what’s out there, it’s just that we don’t have an air monitoring program, like say we have an air monitoring program for the criteria pollutants,” he said.

Louisville’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program was built around modeling the toxic pollution, not monitoring it. This means engineers calculate how much pollution a given facility releases, where it will go, and how it adds to pollution from other industries.

But Barnett said even with STAR, monitoring for toxic pollutants is necessary.

“If you’re going to have a STAR program and you’re going to impose regulations on companies, but you have no monitoring, then you really are flying blind. You don’t know whether you’re making any progress or not making progress. The only way to really know whether your regulatory program is operating the way that you think that it should is through monitoring.”

The loss of funding for toxic air monitoring also means Louisville’s West Jefferson County Community Task Force won’t be funded. The organization has advocated for the community for decades and served as a link between residents, government and industry. Last year, WJCCTF received $25,000 from the state money that went to Barnett’s monitoring program.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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