Eboni Cochran says there’s a lot to like about her neighborhood in Louisville’s West End.
“You make a right and you will hit lots of green space, beautiful parkway with beautiful tall trees, with nice houses,” she says.
Cochran is a leader with a volunteer group called REACT: Rubbertown Emergency ACTion.
“But then to the left, you are going to run into lots of railroad tracks, you’re going to see railcars that are parked behind trees throughout your little route. And on the right you’re going to start seeing the beginnings of Rubbertown, chemical plants.”
And there’s the ‘but.’ Pretty much everyone I spoke with for this series—from Park DuValle to Riverside Gardens—said they like living where they live. But the health and safety problems—past, present and potential—seriously affect their quality of life.
So, what’s the answer? Do you kick out the industry? Move the people? Or find some middle ground where everyone can coexist? And for people who have spent their lives worried about toxic emissions from Rubbertown, is it even possible to coexist?
Changing attitudes about pollution
Wilma Subra is an environmental scientist who’s worked with communities dealing with pollution all over the United States—including Louisville. She says some neighborhoods have been bought out and moved away from industry. This eliminates their exposure to chemicals, but introduces other problems.
“When you relocate a community like that, it tears apart the social fabric of the community because they live together, they take care of each other’s children, all of their social networks are in that community,” she said. “And when you get a relocation program, frequently they’re not relocated to the same area.”
Instead, Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council says society needs to change the way we look at pollution—and stop tolerating companies that expose people to potentially hazardous chemicals.
“Ultimately, the solution that we should be moving towards is this substitution of less toxic chemicals, a shift away from petroleum-based chemicals, to greener chemicals, plant-based chemicals in many cases,” he said. “And ultimately towards waste reduction, rather than using the public’s air and land and water resources for waste disposal.”
Groups advocate regulatory reform
Environmental groups have been pushing changes to the regulations over the chemicals that are used everywhere—from factories to food packaging. The Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, is supposed to regulate toxic chemicals. But Elizabeth Crowe of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation says in reality, it falls short.
“Most people living nearby a facility, or even most of us who go shopping at the grocery story assume that if we buy a product or if the company is using a chemical in their manufacturing process that they wouldn’t be able to do that if the chemical was actually not safe,” she said. “And unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
Under TSCA, the Environmental Protection Agency needs evidence that exposure to the chemical in the quantities it’s used in is dangerous. Only then can it require product testing. Cochran says that logic is fundamentally flawed.
“The burden of proof should not be on residents,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to bring scientific proof that these chemicals are harming us.”
Cochran and Crowe support a bill in Congress called the Safe Chemicals Act. It would require the chemical industry to prove chemicals are safe before they’re allowed to enter the market.
Chemical companies say they’re on board with TSCA reforms. The American Chemistry Council has publicly said it’s willing to work toward a bipartisan solution, but it has major problems with the proposed legislation. The industry group spent more than $7 million in lobbying last year…and some of that was against the Safe Chemicals Act. The ACC says the bill would place too much of a burden on regulators and compromise companies’ trade secrets.
Companies with facilities in Louisville didn’t have much to say on the legislation. Michelin spokesman Brian Remsberg—the company owns American Synthetic Rubber, which operates a plant in Rubbertown—says the company doesn’t have a position on the Safe Chemicals Act. But he noted in an email that the company is continuously working on improving its environmental performance: “ASRC is currently investing $42 Million as the first phase of a project to replace toluene, with a more environmentally friendly chemical, cyclohexane,” he wrote.
Louisville Lubrizol plant manager Sam Striegel didn’t have a strong opinion on it either—even though the company is a member of the ACC. Striegel says because Lubrizol is a global company, it already has to comply with stricter regulations around the world, like the European Union’s REACH program (which stands for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals).
“We’re already moving toward compliance with REACH,” Striegel said. “We’ll do what we have to do.”
If Louisville were being planned today, the city’s founders probably wouldn’t sandwich industrial and residential areas next to each other. Rubbertown was started out of necessity during World War II, and it’s hard to find anyone who thinks the design is perfect. But now the city is stuck with it, and it looks like any solution is going to be imperfect as well.Listen to the story.
Erica’s reporting on health issues in Rubbertown was undertaken as a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.