For 35 years, the Lees Lane Landfill in Southwest Louisville took in everything the city wanted to throw out, from household trash to toxic chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than two million cubic yards of waste went into the landfill. And though it’s been closed and remediated, there are still unanswered questions about contamination at the site.
The Lees Lane Landfill is 112 acres of prime real estate on the Ohio River. In the 1920s, the area was a beach with a fancy clubhouse…one of the amenities for the nearby resort community Riverside Gardens. But in the 1940s, the property’s owners turned the tract into a sand and gravel quarry…and a municipal dump…and a repository for toxic chemicals from nearby Rubbertown.
“There was over 300 companies from all over the United States that would haul in there and just directly dump it in the ground,” says Riverside Gardens resident Monika Burkhead. “No drums, no nothing, just a hose and dump it in the ground.”
Burkhead moved to Riverside Gardens a year after the landfill closed in 1975, but residents who lived there in the 60s and early 70s remember the trucks that drove down Lees Lane to the dump, all times of the day and night. The landfill wasn’t lined, and there were no restrictions on the materials being dumped.
Burkhead recalls a conversation with a former dump truck driver—now dead—about his frequent trips into the landfill. “He could remember driving the dump truck and he hit one of the spots where the chemicals were, and it melted the tires on the dump truck,” she says.
The toxic soup buried in the landfill included phenolic resins, benzene, inorganic chemicals and heavy metals. And at the time, it wasn’t illegal. The federal government didn’t pass the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—or RCRA—until 1976, which allows it to control hazardous waste from cradle to grave.
Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council says the previous century’s decisions about waste disposal will haunt Louisville for a long time.
“These legacy sites that are all over the community, predominantly in downtown and in the West End, are a burden that will continue to be felt by the community,” he said.
Lees Lane was added to the Superfund list as a National Priority Site in 1983, and stayed there for 13 years. The drums with hazardous waste were drained, and the waste was trucked off to approved disposal facilities. But some of the hazardous waste wasn’t in drums, and leached into the ground and the Ohio River. Everything else was left behind, piled up in the middle. A clay cap was placed over part of it, and groundwater and gas wells were installed. The gas wells were designed to collect and vent methane, which migrated into nearby basements in the 1970s and caused flash fires in seven homes.
“Were people exposed in the past?” 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.”
People who grew up in Riverside Gardens tell stories about playing in the landfill—and in some cases, following the bread trucks in and scrounging the day-old bread that was thrown out there. The trucks full of chemicals drove through their community, dripping liquid on the streets.
Authorities say the landfill doesn’t pose a hazard to current Riverside Gardens residents; air and groundwater monitoring at the site doesn’t show dangerous levels of chemicals. But after decades of being legally poisoned, the community isn’t inclined to take the government’s word for it. A community meeting this summer attracted lots of angry residents who wanted the Environmental Protection Agency to answer for their past exposure.
A remediated site
The landfill today is mostly forested, with a grassy plain along the river. Tony Marconi with the Metropolitan Sewer District shows me around.
“So this is what would be considered the capped area,” he says, as we drove along a road on the landfill. “Kind of where there’s no trees, the roadway, and then up to the river there…” He points. There are big rocks, or rip-rap, lining the riverbank in an effort to keep the landfill from eroding into the Ohio.
It’s technically off-limits to the public, because any trespassing could potentially damage the cap and people could risk exposure to chemicals. But MSD has had a hard time keeping it closed off. It’s too big to put a fence around, so the agency has blocked off the road access.
It doesn’t help that the Louisville Loop—the city’s partially finished bike path—goes right along the Superfund site. In fact, to get on the Louisville Loop walkers and bicyclists have to pass the sign that warns “road closed,” and the one that says “no trespassing by order of MSD.”
Because MSD was one of the companies that put its waste in Lees Lane, the agency is responsible for maintaining the site until 2020. Under the terms of the agreement, MSD is responsible for maintenance costs of up to $250,000 on Lees Lane, but they’re very close, if not over, that amount already.
The site is up for its five-year review this year, and EPA Project Manager Donna Seadler says the agency has already identified some improvements that need to be made.
“The gas collection system does need to be replaced and we have identified that and we’re trying to work right now to figure out how to make that happen,” she said.
That could mean going back to the original companies that dumped in Lees Lane for more money.
But Russ Barnett from the University of Louisville says he thinks there are still unanswered questions at the site. The EPA’s monitoring has recorded small amounts of toxic chemicals, which Barnett says he wouldn’t expect to still be coming out of the landfill after 40 years.
“So now the question that we’ll have to explore is at what levels do we think that we’re emitting volatile organics,” he said. “After 40 years of being closed, what is still being released and at what levels and do those levels pose a risk?”
Barnett says the monitors could be picking up air emissions from Rubbertown. Or, the gases could be coming out of the landfill. But he wants to know where they’re coming from, so he can determine whether residents are exposed. He plans to conduct soil gas monitoring this spring, to see if dangerous chemicals are traveling through contaminated groundwater and coming up through the soil on private property.Listen to the story.
Coming up on Wednesday: communities burdened by pollution on the West End also face air emissions from a non-industrial source: traffic.
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.