For more than a century, Beargrass Creek was the repository for everything that Louisville wanted to throw away.
Back in the day, it was where pig entrails from Butchertown operations ended up. That’s no longer the case, but the creek is still where Louisville’s sewer overflows go whenever it rains. And even to this day, the banks are lined in some places with large, discarded concrete slabs. They’re the remnants of the downtown Belvedere, from when it was redone in the 1990s.
“We redirected the creek,” Tim Joice with the Beargrass Creek Alliance said, gesturing to the water. “Actually, we redirected it and because there was a big hole in the ground, we filled it in with landfill, we made it a landfill. We have in our history taken advantage of it in that way.”
And as the area near the creek and Waterfront Park attract new development — like the Waterfront Botanical Gardens which is scheduled to break ground in September — there are ongoing efforts to clean up the urban waterway. The Metropolitan Sewer District is in the middle of an $850 million federal consent decree to eliminate sewer overflows that go into Beargrass Creek, for one.
But one site that hasn’t changed much is the Metro impound lot.
The lot — most of which is owned by Louisville Metro Government and operated by the Louisville Metro Police Department — is an eyesore, but it’s also a significant source of pollution for nearby Beargrass Creek.
Decades of Polluted Runoff
Joice stands on the Butchertown Greenway, where there’s a view of the impound lot.
“Cars, many of which as you can see are wrecked, they’re just sitting here,” he said. “They probably haven’t been claimed for awhile. So they’re just sitting here, wrecked, rotting, leaking fluids, transmission fluid, gas, oil, antifreeze, whatever it is.”
This, he said, is a problem that’s been going on for decades. And recently, there’s a new push to address the pollution from the lot.
Last month, a coalition of businesses, non-profits and community leaders presented a proposed resolution to Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Police Chief Steve Conrad. Among other things, they want vehicles to be kept out of the 100-year flood plain, regular water monitoring and all fluids drained if a vehicle is there longer than three days.
But in a perfect world, the lot would be moved.
“We’ve already seen improvements,” said Russ Barnett, citing other pollution reduction efforts. He’s the director of the Kentucky Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development at the University of Louisville.
“So, it’s ironic that something as simple as this one tow lot, that we can’t seem to get across the need to make some minor corrections there so we can continue to see improvement in water quality,” he said.
If the impound lot was just an empty asphalt lot, rainfall running off into the creek would still be a source of pollution. But the presence of junked cars — some of which are in or near the floodplain — adds another wrinkle. Leaking oil, gas and transmission fluid makes its way into the creek. Barnett has tested the runoff.
“What we found is elevated levels of bacteria, elevated levels of oil and gas, elevated levels of nutrients coming off the facility, and we were measuring it at two separate discharge points,” he said.
‘The reality of development’
The impound lot has what’s known as a “general permit” from the Kentucky Division of Water. That means there aren’t necessarily limits for different pollutants, but it does require the runoff from the lot be tested twice a year.
Even though the lot has had the permit since 1993, there’s no record of testing ever being done until June 30 — two weeks ago. That’s the same day WFPL requested information about the lot. Louisville Forward spokeswoman Jessica Wethington said in an email that the testing found high levels of suspended solids, and city officials are developing a plan to address the issue. She said the city has contracted with a company to check the lot’s runoff twice a year — like has been required in the permit for the past 24 years — moving forward.
Theresa Zawacki is the Senior Policy Advisor to Louisville Forward. She said Metro Government is aware of the issues.
“We know that long-term, the tow lot’s probably not going to be there,” she said. “But it’s going to take us some time, and frankly, some money, to figure out what the answers will be.”
And she added these are issues that are common in cities as formerly industrial areas transition.
“It’s just sort of the reality of development,” Zawacki said. “And you can look at other areas of the city that have had these issues as well, so Waterfront Park used to be scrap metal processing and storage. So as the park came in and cleaned up that area, we still have legacy industry, we still have legacy land use that are just across the street and really just across the interstate now, from that wonderful amenity.”
Ultimately, the long-term solution might be to move the lot somewhere else…but it’ll require finding a large space that’s centrally-located.
But Tim Joice and the others who signed the petition asking for city government action on the lot would like to see — at the minimum — a few simple measures to control the pollution.
“Look, we’re doing our part, we’d really love to see the city take a few steps here to really control this issue, right here, right by the creek,” he said.
In the meantime, Zawacki said the city is exploring its options.