Rubbertown and Health: The Whole Series

During the month of January, WFPL aired nine features on the issues posed in regulating toxic air emissions in Rubbertown—and the past, present and potential health concerns of residents. Here’s a collection of those stories.

Louisville’s Air Program Marks Successes, But Health Concerns Linger

The series’ first installment is a background on Louisville’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program, and the ways the program has succeeded in drastically reducing the amounts of toxic chemicals in Louisville’s air. But despite what the numbers show, residents near Rubbertown still report odors. “Sometimes it burns,” Trish Lee said. “Like you can go outside, sometimes at night, and your eyes actually burn.”

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Air Issues Plague Park DuValle, One of Louisville’s Newest Planned Communities

Part two of the series looks at Louisville’s Park DuValle neighborhood, which was built recently to replace old housing projects. Residents there report frequent chemical and sewer odors, which the Air Pollution Control District is investigating. But residents still worry that the odors could represent chemicals that are dangerous to their health.  “And on top of everything, no one seems to be able to tell us what kind of damage this is doing, not just to us, but to people who come to visit us, the grandkids,” Park DuValle resident Sherwood Weir said. “No one knows for sure. And they don’t seem to care.”———————————————————————————————

Rubbertown Odor a Nuisance, But is it Illegal? Hard to Tell

When residents near Rubbertown smell odors, it’s hard to determine whether what they’re smelling is released legally, under permits, or illegally. Regulators also have to figure out where the odor is coming from, and what chemical it is. Russ Barnett of the University of Louisville says often the most dangerous chemicals don’t have an odor unless they’re released in large amounts. “So it might be odorless, and some of the things that people do smell might be an annoyance but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a health problem,” he said. “And that’s a very difficult thing to get a handle on.”

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Lung, Colon Cancer Rates Higher Near Rubbertown Than Other Louisville Neighborhoods

The series’ fourth installment analyzes data from the Kentucky Cancer Registry, which shows that there are significantly higher amounts of both lung and colon cancer in the zip codes near Rubbertown, when compared with several other Louisville zip codes with similar median incomes. Kentucky Cancer Registry director Tom Tucker says it’s hard to say what role environmental factors do–or don’t–play in these cancer cases. “And while we are unable to show a statistical difference between those tumors with known environmental exposures; that doesn’t mean it’s not possible they’re there, we simple are unable to do it with the information and data that’s available,” Tucker said.

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Patients, Widows, Researchers Still Dealing With Toxic Legacy of Rubbertown Chemical

One type of cancer that can definitely be linked to chemical exposure is hepatic hemangiosarcoma…a type of liver cancer that so far 26 former Rubbertown workers have died from. One of those was Janet Crecelius Johnson’s husband, Revis. “When he got out of the army, a week later he got a job at B.F. Goodrich. He was just pleased to have a job,” Johnson said. Revis cleaned vats of vinyl chloride for the first year of his 39-year career in Rubbertown. “No protection,” Johnson said. “And if he was given any warning, I don’t know it.” The fifth story in the series looks at the current research that University of Louisville researchers are doing into chemical exposure.

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Riverside Gardens: A Former Resort Community Besieged By Pollution

The series’ sixth installment profiles Riverside Garden, a resort community that was built so Louisvillians could escape urban pollution. But for the past seventy years, the neighborhood has been plagued by air emissions from the nearby coal-fired power plant and Rubbertown, as well as a former Superfund site at one end of the community. “My lungs look…years ago my doctor told me, he said, ‘I can always tell where you’re from because your lungs are so screwed up.’ They’re scarred,” said Riverside Gardens resident Sharon Charles. “Part of that is probably due to living in the Ohio River Valley, but a lot of it is due to this area.”

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Southwest Louisville Residents Still Concerned About Long-Dormant Landfill

For decades, the Lees Lane Landfill took in all the municipal garbage and toxic waste people wanted to throw away. It was closed in 1975, and became a Superfund site. And residents of nearby Riverside Gardens wonder whether the landfill is responsible for the numerous health problems experienced by people in the community. “Were people exposed in the past?” environmental attorney Tom FitzGerald asks. “Absolutely. And there’s no excuse for it. I mean, these companies knew the potential hazards associated with the waste they were shipping off to the landfill.” Regulators say the site isn’t causing any current exposures, but questions still remain.

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Interstate Traffic Makes Air Quality in Rubbertown Worse

The eighth installment in the series looks at another source of pollution in Rubbertown: the interstate highway that runs through it. Everyone in Louisville is being exposed to high levels of a chemical called benzene, most of which probably comes from vehicles. “Keep in mind that here in Louisville we drive 24 million miles a day,” Russ Barnett of the University of Louisville said. “That’s the average amount of vehicle miles driven. Some of it is from Louisvillians and some of it is from people driving on 71, 65 or I-64.” But people in Rubbertown are breathing these emissions on top of ones from the nearby chemical plants.

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No End in Sight for Clash Between Residents, Rubbertown Industry

So, what’s next? The last installment of the series looks at possible solutions for addressing the concerns residents have about living in the backyard of chemical plants. But there’s no perfect answer. Some activists, like Eboni Cochran of Rubbertown Emergency ACTion, say Congress needs to pass legislation to update the Toxic Substances Control Act. “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.”

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.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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