Environment

State and city officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony in Louisville on Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, to celebrate the completion of the waterway protection tunnel and the expansion of Waterfront Park.

Louisville has spent the better part of two decades under a federal consent decree designed to stop the city’s sewers from overflowing into the Ohio River and Beargrass Creek. 

The Metropolitan Sewer District finished the waterway protection tunnel in June. The $221 million, four-mile long tunnel captures the city’s excess sewage until it can be managed at the wastewater treatment plant. 

MSD director Tony Parrott credited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act and the consent decree for improving the city’s waterways. 

“With all the storage basins we have done since 2006, we have been able to eliminate 90% of the previous combined sewer overflows that existed in Louisville,” Parrott said. 

Since opening, the tunnel has captured about 90 million gallons of sewage. 

Clean Water Act anniversary 

The 1972 Clean Water Act was designed to restore the integrity of the country’s waterways and make them safe for fishing, swimming and other uses. 

To that end, the act created a permitting program to limit cities and industries from polluting waterways with sewage and toxic chemicals. That has led to major improvements in waterways across the country, and ultimately drove cities like Louisville to clean up its sewer system.

“When Congress passed the Clean Water Act of 1972 it was with overwhelming bipartisan support. It charted a new path for America’s waters. As a result, we’ve had transformational progress over the last 50 years,” Carol Kemker, EPA Region IV enforcement and compliance director said at the event. 

However, an Environmental Integrity Project report on the Clean Water Act also found a number of ongoing problems, from the lack of controls over runoff pollution from farm fields and suburban lawns to ongoing issues with interstate pollution. The report also found that two-thirds of the EPA’s water pollution rules are more than 30 years old even though the Clean Water Act called for them to be re-examined every five years.

In Kentucky, an estimated 69% of the state’s waterways are impaired for water recreation, 51% are impaired for aquatic life, and 62% are impaired for fish consumption, according to the March report. 

Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet released a study in September that found the same kinds of chemicals used in Teflon and Scotchgard in the tissue of every single fish sampled in lakes and streams across the state. These so-called ‘forever chemicals’ have already been found throughout the Ohio River, in every major Kentucky watershed, and at unsafe levels in at least 38 drinking water systems

A report from October found heavy industry dumped more toxic pollution into the Ohio River watershed than any other in the United States in 2020.

In fact, the section of the Ohio River just beyond where officials held their ceremony is still listed as only partially supporting recreation due to fecal bacteria, and fish consumption due to chemicals including doxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Expanding Waterfront Park 

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear joined Louisville officials to announce the expansion of Waterfront Park on the five-acre lot used by MSD to complete the tunnel. 

“We’re also celebrating Waterfront Park and its expansion into the West End of Louisville. This was one of my priorities,” Beshear said. 

Louisville’s Waterfront Park received $10 million from this year’s state budget to fund the expansion into west Louisville. 

Plans for the project call for an estimated $50 million to connect downtown Louisville with the Portland neighborhood with the goals of improving the waterfront, providing community-gathering space, walkability, recreation and accessibility.

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