Environment

Louisville Gas & Electric has agreed to pay a $750,000 dollar penalty for emitting high levels of sulfuric acid mist into communities surrounding the Mill Creek coal-fired power plant in Louisville. 

LG&E publicly acknowledged the potential dangers of emitting the mist from the plant as early as 2006, according to a civil complaint filed by local air pollution regulators in 2020. That same year LG&E received approval from utility regulators to install pollution control technologies. 

But LG&E did not begin installing those controls until 2014.

In the intervening years, the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District recorded dozens of complaints of blue and brown plumes of sulfuric acid mist emanating from Mill Creek Station. The mist can cause difficulty breathing and burning of the eyes, nose and throat. It also causes tooth decay. 

LG&E has agreed to permanent emissions limits for sulfuric acid mist, in addition to the penalty. The power company also agreed to reduce diesel emissions as a supplemental project aimed at reducing ground-level emissions.

“These permanent emissions limits continue the work of protecting the air for the people of Louisville,” said Rachael Hamilton, Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District director, in a statement. “This settlement will have a positive impact on air quality.”

As early as 2005, LG&E began burning coal with a high sulfur content at the Mill Creek power plant in southwest Louisville, according to the complaint. The high sulfur content produces sulfur dioxide, another irritant, and sulfur trioxide, which becomes sulfuric acid mist under the right weather conditions, according to the complaint. 

LG&E continues to deny the violations alleged in the complaint, according to the consent decree filed Wednesday. Spokesperson Chris Whelan said LG&E was only aware of limited blue plume issues in the summer of 2014 and undertook action to limit the pollution. 

“The EPA contends that, between 2012 and 2015, residents around the Mill Creek plant complained to APCD about a blue plume or certain odors consistent with sulfuric acid mist. More than five years have passed without any additional complaints,” Whelan said. 

From 2012 to 2015, Louisville’s Air Pollution Control District recorded 56 complaints relating to blue haze, brown smoke and smog in or near the Valley Village neighborhood near the power plant. Residents reported sulfuric stenches, “pickle odor”, throat irritation and difficulty breathing.

An Environmental Protection Agency database found 51% of the residents living around the plant are low income and 24% are people of color. 

Whelan with LG&E said the company completed the $1.2 billion project to install the emission control systems in 2016  nearly 10 years after they first received approval from the Kentucky Public Service Commission.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.