Investigation
7:00 am
Thu August 21, 2014

Sewage, Stench Plague a Louisville Mobile Home Park, Bringing Scrutiny for Well-Connected Owner

A manhole cover leaks untreated sewage onto the ground and into Pond Creek.
Credit Alix Mattingly/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

Industrial sprawl gives way to a more bucolic backdrop below the Gene Snyder Freeway west of Interstate 65. Here, Metro Louisville consists of shady lanes and open land, exactly what people want when they move to Ashley Pointe Mobile Home Park on Penile Road.

For $320 a month in lot rent, residents get the bare minimum of amenities. No tennis courts or clubhouse here, no lush landscaping. What makes Ashley Pointe unique hangs in the air, the sometimes lingering odor of untreated human waste.

“Put it this way, we’ve had our windows up and the air conditioner running, and you can still smell it in our vehicle,” said Steve Caudill, who has lived six years on Fir Tree Lane.

The culprit is a sewage system, owned by the trailer park, that over many years has belched its contents through manholes into streets, yards, under trailers and, according to the state, into a nearby feeder stream of Pond Creek. From there it flows into the Ohio River.

Ashley Pointe
Credit Google Maps

  Residents say the stench is strongest near manholes — some in yards — in ditches that catch the overflowing sewage, and on days after heavy rains. “I can’t sit on my porch because it’s so bad,” said Freda Dixon, a seven-year resident of Juneberry Court. “I even put honeysuckle around trying to absorb some of the odor, and that didn’t even faze it.”

Dwayne Ashcraft, who lives all the way on the other side of Ashley Pointe on Blackberry Drive, shared this encounter with the stink: “Two or three months ago, the sewage was in the ditch and was backing up so much there was a layer about an inch thick. You could smell the raw sewage when you were cutting the grass.”

State and county regulators are well aware of the situation. The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health & Wellness has received complaints about the sewage leaks for more than a decade and, in January, tried to suspend Ashley Pointe’s mobile home park permit. The Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection has cited the park twice in the past year for discharging raw sewage into a public waterway.

“We have no doubt that it’s impacting the waters of the commonwealth,” said Charlie Roth, environmental control supervisor for the state agency’s Louisville regional office.

Nathan Smith
Credit Northern Kentucky University

One of 17 Kentucky trailer parks owned by SSK Communities of Erlanger, Ashley Pointe averted a permit suspension by repairing pumps that its says were damaged by residents throwing beach towels, brooms and large toys into manholes. In letters to the state, it denies any creek pollution. But occasional sewage overflows continue, and the two agencies aren’t backing down against SSK, which is owned by a powerful Kentucky Democratic party fund-raiser.

SSK co-owner Nathan Smith is perhaps most recognized as the trailer pitchman waving his arms and jumping around the screen in his company’s TV spots. As a sought-after Democratic rainmaker, he held an event in June for U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes at his home in Fort Mitchell. Among the guests, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Credit YouGotItHomes.com

Smith is also serving as campaign chairman for Jack Conway, the Kentucky attorney general running for governor. He has given money to Gov. Steve Beshear and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. Beshear named him vice chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party from 2007 to 2011.

All that is lost on the nose-holding residents of Ashley Pointe, which, before SSK bought it in 1997, was known as Country Breeze Estates. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting spoke with 10 residents from different parts of the park. Most want SSK to cure the sewage overflows once and for all. Some have learned to accept the smell.

“We can’t even open up our windows because the smell is so bad,” said one longtime resident who, like most others, did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation. “If you do, you get sick. You have to keep your air-conditioner going even when it’s cool outside.”

On one occasion three years ago, she said, sewage spilled out of a manhole and under her trailer. The same thing happened last October to the home of Joyce Kennerly several streets away on Ivy Ridge Lane. A metro Health Department inspector photographed it.

“It’s pitch-black sludge that smells horrible,” said Kennerly, 75. “Down here there were feces and condoms. Sometimes there’s a foot of water under the trailer.

“People shouldn’t have to live like this,” said Kennerly, who lives alone and says she has arthritis. “I’ve been here 18 years and have lived here under several managers, and this company is the worst. They have no sympathy.”

Joyce Kennerly
Credit Alix Mattingly/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

The sewage leaks aren’t imagined. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting first visited Ashley Pointe in July and saw clear water cascading gently from an Elderberry Lane manhole into a ditch that feeds into the nearby creek. On a second visit, brownish water spewed from a locked sewer manhole off of Ivy Ridge Lane and streamed toward the creek bed.

Sewage is a long-running problem at Ashley Pointe. In the early 1990s, the state cited the park for having 315 trailers on a private treatment plant designed to serve 110. The discharge of untreated waste into a creek led to a legal settlement and the park’s connection to the Metropolitan Sewer District in 1995. That was supposed to solve the problem.

It didn’t. People still complained. Beginning in late 2012, the Metro Health Department verified sewage overflows on nine occasions over the next year. It filed a notice of intent to suspend SSK’s permit to operate the trailer park, but a state hearing officer accepted SSK’s allegations of vandalism and allowed the park to stay open, subject to continuing inspections.

Smith said “four or five” Ashley Pointe residents have been identified as vandals over the years. “If you really want to wreak havoc on a place, it’s really simple,” he said in a telephone interview. “You throw something down the pump station, it gets caught up in the pump, it balls up and then you call the Health Department. It works really good.”

After a health department inspection late last year, SSK installed padlocked metal bars over many sewer manhole covers. But the sewage overflows persist. On April 24, the Health Department photographed sewage flowing from a locked manhole toward the creek bed.

“It’s not acceptable to run a park with sewage exposures,” said Connie Mendel, the metro environmental health administrator. “The next one we witness, we will move immediately to an intent to suspend their permit.”

Connie Mendel
Credit Alix Mattingly/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

Smith, who visited Ashley Pointe in late July, said he is not aware of sewer overflows “in the past several months.” He denied that sewage flows beneath people’s trailers.

“That’s just simply not true, sir,” he said. “I’m familiar with the manholes malfunctioning, but I’m not familiar with that. You’re welcome to write anything that’s in the health inspector’s report.”

Smith also said he’s “not familiar” with the sewage odors at Ashley Pointe. When residents’ comments were read to him, he grew testy. “Now we’re going into hearsay. I don’t know that they said that. I’m not going to comment on that.”

SSK denies the polluting of a public waterway. But the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection served it with notices of violation — in July 2013 and March 2014 — for allegedly befouling the creek with black untreated waste. The company again blamed vandals and paid for equipment repairs. As for the allegation of polluting a public waterway, SSK claimed innocence because the sewage went into a “small impoundment” that did not “meet the definition of ‘river,’ ‘stream’ or ‘creek.’”

Roth, environmental control supervisor for the agency’s Louisville regional office, said SSK’s claim is not valid.

“We’re not buying their contention that it’s not a stream. If it meets our regs and has a channel and a bank, it’s a stream,” Roth said. “I can tell you we are going to revisit it … If notices of violation don’t seem to solve the problem, then we can step it up to a formal enforcement action.”

Metro Councilwoman Vicki Aubrey Welch, whose District 13 includes Ashley Pointe, said she had not heard of the trailer park residents’ plight. She sympathized with what they were up against.

“These trailer park (owners) make a lot of money and they just don’t reinvest it into their properties,” she said. “They let it go down and they just take advantage of these poor people.”

As is often the case with trailer park residents under the duress of rising rents or undesirable living conditions, many in Ashley Pointe are too poor to do anything but stay put.

“They can’t go anywhere. They can’t just up and move,” Welch said. “Many are elderly people or single-parent families or barely making their way. Living in those kinds of conditions is just ridiculous.”

This story was reported by WFPL's Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Reporter James McNair can be reached at jmcnair@kycir.org or (502) 814-6543.