All of the major factories in Louisville’s Rubbertown area have permits that allow them to put specific amounts of certain chemicals into the air. But when residents report unpleasant smells, it’s hard to know where they’re coming from and whether a factory is violating its permit.
If you live near Rubbertown on the West End, there’s a lot to worry about. There’s a possibility of a major disaster—like the explosion that ripped through the DuPont plant in 1965 or the 2011 explosion at Union Carbide. But day-to-day, the pressing concern is the odor in the air and what chemicals and health complications they might bring.
“It’s nice a neighborhood except for the smell,” Rose Branch said. She has lived in her home in Park DuValle since 2000 and loves the area, but says the sewage and chemical odors that blanket the community are becoming unbearable.
“The other day, during the day, I got off the expressway at Bells Lane, and as soon as I hit that exit it just went” —she smacks herself in the forehead— “awful smell.”
Since 2005, the toxic chemicals emitted into Louisville’s air have decreased. That’s mostly because of regulations, said Tom Nord, spokesman for the Air Pollution Control District.
But Nord said it’s also not in a company’s best interest to spill valuable chemicals or risk incurring penalties for violations.
“You can’t have a chemical plant and have a zero pollution zone,” he said. “But the combination of regulations and just common sense says it’s not a good idea to have this stuff just floating around.”
Nuisance vs. health hazard
So, what’s Rose Branch smelling? Russ Barnett says it’s hard to say, but often the most dangerous chemicals have no odor, unless they’re released in huge amounts. Barnett is the director of the Kentucky Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development at the University of Louisville, and runs independent air monitoring for toxic air pollutants.
“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.”
And it’s also hard to know whether Rubbertown residents are smelling chemicals that are released legally, under the permits, or illegally.
But even when companies have what the Air Pollution Control District terms “excess emissions”—meaning the release of chemicals beyond what’s permitted—there’s a process to deal with it. The companies are required to report the excess emissions, and the APCD can require they demonstrate what they’ve done to fix the problem. Sometimes, like in the case of Louisville Gas and Electric and the company’s ongoing coal ash problems at the Cane Run power plant, the district issues a notice of violation.
Residents suspect that because the smells are usually stronger at night, that’s a sign of companies trying to get away without reporting excess emissions. But actually, Barnett says that phenomenon is probably mostly due to the weather.
“We’re in a river valley and as we get a cold front moving in, we’ll have an inversion at night and trap some of these volatiles closer to the ground,” he said.
But regardless of whether a company is allowed to release a chemical into the air, nobody’s permitted to be a nuisance. And if odors are leaving a property line, the Air Pollution Control District can take action.
But first, the compliance officers have to smell the air themselves.
Millions spent on emission control
Rose Branch has tried to let them know whenever she smells something. She pulls out two sheets of notebook paper stapled together where she’s meticulously recorded all of her calls to the city’s 311 line. There’s the date, time, tracking number, and notes of whether she got a response.
“I’ve got 15 difference instances starting with May,” Branch says.
Six of those complaints were routed to the Air Pollution Control District. But Branch usually smells the odors at night, when compliance officers aren’t on duty. The district took an average of a day-and-a-half to investigate Branch’s complaints, and each time they showed up, the odor was long gone.
The rest of Branch’s complaints were sent to the Metropolitan Sewer District, which also mans the 311 hotline at night. Morris Forman Treatment Plant manager Alex Novak says workers check all the odor control equipment weekly, but extra checks are done when they get odor complaints.
“We’ve spent millions of dollars on odor control systems at the plant,” he said. “Most of them are biological-type systems. And we’ve also covered a lot of basins that could be in the past potential odor sources.”
Other Rubbertown companies similarly tout their efforts to reduce excess emissions. Brian Remsberg of American Synthetic Rubber points to the nearly $50 million in pollution controls the company has installed since 2005.
“ASRC takes a very proactive approach when reporting potential excess emissions to the Louisville Air Pollution Control District,” Remsberg wrote in an email. The company reported 33 excess emission events over the past two years. “After each reported incident, an internal review is executed to determine the root cause of an issue and actions are implemented to prevent a recurrence. In many of the cases mentioned, the internal review determined that no excess emissions actually occurred. This data was also reported to APCD.”
The Air Pollution Control District is actively investigating the smells in Park DuValle and other odors in Riverside Gardens. Nord said the fact that the officers aren’t on duty 24 hours a day is one of the department’s limitations. If an odor is persistent enough, one of the district’s officers will catch it, he said.
“I don’t want to give people the impression that because we don’t have unlimited resources or because we’re not the police department or the fire department that we’re just going to punt on this,” Nord said. “We’re certainly not.”
Nord said these issues are a top priority, as the city works to reduce odors and the associated health effects. And for someone who moves into the area today, their exposure would be lower than in years past. But those who have been exposed to the bad air for years wonder if it’s responsible for the chronic health conditions that affect many in the West End.Listen to the story.
Coming up Monday: Anecdotally, there are high instances of cancer among those living near Rubbertown. But what do the numbers show?
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.