Robert Willibaum can count on two hands the neighbors he’s known who have died from rare forms of cancer. For the last 32 years, Willibaum has lived in Riverside Gardens, a small community on the western edge of Louisville near the Ohio River.
His home is just a few doors down from the Lees Lane landfill, a federally designated Superfund site that’s still leaching arsenic and lead into the Ohio River. And just over his back fence line is Hexion, a chemical company that makes adhesives.
On Wednesday, Louisville’s air pollution regulators will vote whether to issue more than $100,000 in fines to Hexion for 50 events resulting in excess emissions of chemicals including methanol and the carcinogen formaldehyde.
The releases occurred between January 2018 and May of this year. Normally, they resulted in emissions of less than a pound of pollution, but the frequency of the problems demonstrated operational issues at the plant, said Steven Gravatte, compliance and enforcement manager for the Louisville Air Pollution Control District.
“General poor plant maintenance can result in bigger problems and at times it seemed lucky they had avoided those types of issues,” Gravatte said.
Regulators say Hexion has had several years’ worth of small releases due to malfunctions and hiccups with equipment at the plant. In some cases, workers may have even turned off alarms warning them about the possibility of leaks, Gravatte said.
Just last year, Hexion paid more than $250,000 in fines for 85 events resulting in excess emissions dating back to 2015. He said the repeated failures are a trend that makes Hexion unique among other Rubbertown companies over the last few years.
Hexion declined an interview request. In a statement, a spokesman said the company has made improvements and is cooperating with the Air Pollution Control District. The spokesman also said Hexion has not exceeded its permitted emission limits… and that’s technically true.
The Air Pollution Control District allows Hexion to emit up to 10 tons of formaldehyde per year and they only released about a ton of formaldehyde in 2017, according to the latest data available.
“Hexion continues its commitment to operate its facilities in full compliance with all regulations and in a safe and environmentally responsible manner,” spokesman John Kompa said in a statement.
Hexion is just one of 56 facilities releasing toxic air pollution in West and South Louisville. Together, they account for more than 80 percent of the toxic air pollution released by facilities in Jefferson County, according to a WFPL News analysis from earlier this year.
On the front porch of his home in Riverside Gardens, Willibaum said he has “breathing problems,” but he feels like there’s nothing he can do about the chemical plants.
He and everyone else in his community has dealt with the pollution for decades. And while many think the chemical plants have contributed to their health problems, diagnosing the cause of most cancers is difficult; the disease can result from any number of environmental, genetic and lifestyle factors.
As for the new $100,000 fine, Willibaum says that’s like “spit in the ocean” for Hexion.
“I don’t know what can be done about it. We’ve struggled with this issue for a long time and come to a resolution,” he said. “They’re all about making the almighty dollar and producing their stuff and it’s just… crazy.”
Officials at the Louisville Air Pollution Control District say Hexion’s latest fine is an example of the system working correctly. By monitoring releases, and enforcing local regulations, authorities are catching problems early, Gravatte said.
“Before these small releases turned into something bigger, we wanted to penalize them and make it their concern to deal with,” said Gravatte.
But Eboni Cochran, co-director of Rubbertown Emergency Action, says that even minor, frequent releases of chemicals hurt the community.
“We are not living in communities that are affected by a single chemical,” Cochran said. “We are in communities that are affected by myriad chemicals, myriad chemicals with a multitude of impacts like cancerous impacts and other chronic diseases.”
Life Near Rubbertown
Stan Squirwell moved to Louisville about a month ago to spend more time with his four-year-old daughter. He’d never heard of Rubbertown, the city’s chemical plant corridor. He didn’t know about the legacy of air pollution that blows into neighborhoods like his in Shawnee.
He just smelled it.
“I woke up to a very gaseous-smelling fume entering my home,” Squirwell said. “It smelled very similar to, I guess what you would say is a chlorinated, dry cleaning-esque, with a foul undertone of rotting mushrooms smell.”
Now, a bad smell doesn’t always mean that it’s bad for your health. Sometimes, the chemical that’s the worst health-wise is one you can’t smell at all; but bad odors are a quality of life issue and a potential sign that something unhealthy might be in the air. Louisville residents can report foul smells to the Air Pollution Control District.
Squirwell said he smells the odor every day, most strongly in the early mornings. Sometimes, it makes his eyes burn. One day, it was so overwhelming he said he thought he was going to pass out while driving.
Overall, the air quality in Louisville has improved significantly since 2005 when the Louisville Air Pollution Control District began a program to decrease toxic air emissions.
As of 2017, the Strategic Toxic Air Reductions Program has contributed to a 73 percent decrease in the total amount of air toxics in the city, according to the Air Pollution Control District.
But the pollution that remains disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. The people living near toxic air polluters are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty and nearly three times as likely to be a person of color, according to a WFPL analysis from April.
“I feel like everyone has the right to clean air, clean water, clean food,” Squirwell said. “It doesn’t surprise me as far as the history of the country and the wrongs that have been perpetrated on the people of color.”
Back on the other side of Rubbertown in Riverside Gardens, Willibaum said people ask him why he and his neighbors stay in their homes.
“We’re on disability, we’re a low-income neighborhood, we don’t have that kind of money to just say, ‘Hey I think I’m going to move today,” he said.
Correction: This story originally misstated the date of the APCD meeting. The meeting is Wednesday, October 16.