Environment

For three years, American Synthetic Rubber Company emitted more of a toxic chemical than the company is allowed under local regulations, increasing the risk of cancer, heart disease and respiratory illness for disadvantaged communities in west Louisville.

On Wednesday — more than six years after the excess emissions first began — the rubber manufacturer agreed to pay the city’s air quality regulators $135,375 in fines. Included in the penalties are other, more recent releases.

The people who live near the plant on Camp Ground Road are the most likely to experience detrimental impacts from the pollution.

Nearly 60 percent of the residents that live within three miles are people of color and more than 45 percent live below the poverty line, according to Environmental Protection Agency demographic data based on the 2010 census.

Chickasaw neighborhood resident Charles Pope wants to know how those fines are going to help the residents impacted by the pollution.

“I don’t think that fine is good enough for what they’ve done. They need to be coming up with some money for risk assessment,” Pope said. “And not only for risk assessment. Those that might be affected, they might need medical help. They need some money to help pay them medical bills.”

The fines don’t go to the residents impacted by the releases. They instead go to the regulator, Louisville’s Air Pollution Control District. Director Keith Talley said the fines are used to support certain programs, the county attorney and one-off expenses like equipment.

The Air Pollution Control District has helped to reduce toxic air emissions like those from American Synthetic Rubber about 73 percent since 2005, Talley said. That program is known as STAR – the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction Program.

“STAR was created to protect those folks that are most directly impacted by the emissions of those plants,” Talley said.

American Synthetic Rubber itself has reduced emissions of the toxic chemical in question —  1,3 Butadiene — by about 74 percent since 2014, said Eric Bruner, a company spokesman. That’s because the plant is subject to the most stringent regulations of its kind in the country, he said.

The STAR program, the fines, and the lower emissions demonstrate how far the city has come in improving the air quality in west Louisville, but that doesn’t mean the air quality problems are over either, said Arnita Gadson, executive director of the West Jefferson County Community Task Force.

“Yes people are exposed, yes we are dealing with the cancer rate, yes we’re still wondering why many people in the West End go from stage 1 to stage 4 [cancer] very quickly,” Gadson said. “We don’t need to have anybody exposed today, tomorrow or the next day because someone didn’t do their due diligence.”

What You Need To Know About The Releases

Before the STAR program began, American Synthetic Rubber and other companies annually released well over 100,000 pounds of 1,3 Butadiene, said Matt King, APCD industrial permitting manager.

1,3 Butadiene is a colorless gas with a mild-gasoline odor used in the production of synthetic rubber. It’s also a byproduct of all kinds of combustion, including everything from cars, to furnaces and cigarettes, though in much smaller amounts than the emissions released by American Synthetic Rubber.

“It’s a fairly toxic chemical. It’s not too different in properties from other solvents or fuels, but it’s an organic toxic chemical,” King said.

Short-term exposure can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, while long term exposure can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancers including leukemia and bladder, stomach and lung cancers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

While research can show that individual pollutants increase the risk of cancer, it is much harder to demonstrate that one person’s health outcomes are the result of a particular chemical.

‘Pocket Change’

On average, American Synthetic Rubber released about 10,000 pounds of 1,3 Butadiene every year between 2013 and 2017, though the figures do show a downward trend, according to Air Pollution Control District figures.

All of this air toxics data is self-reported by companies through the STAR program.

From 2013 to 2016, American Synthetic Rubber exceeded standards for “fugitive” emissions of 1,3 Butadiene. Those are the trace emissions released from pipe fittings, valves, pumps and anything else that doesn’t come out of the stacks. In 2014, those emissions were about five times higher than the standards set by the Air Pollution Control District.

But American Synthetic Rubber also had two other violations wrapped into Wednesday’s fine. They exceeded their total emissions (mostly because of the 1,3 Butadiene) from 2013 to 2014, King said. Then they reported accidental releases in both 2017 and 2018, according to the agreed order.

Bruner, a company spokesman, said American Synthetic Rubber is committed to reducing emissions.

“The company has taken every possible action to reduce emissions of concern to the community,” he said.

Separately, the Air Pollution Control District has reached four other agreed orders with American Synthetic Rubber totaling more than $170,000 in fines since 2009.

And while Michelin-owned American Synthetic Rubber may see the fines as a drop in the bucket, the fines are a way for companies to know the Air Pollution Control District takes its job seriously, Talley said.

“The actual money is not the benefit, the benefit is gaining greater compliance to the permit and reducing those emissions, that’s what benefits the folks in that neighborhood,” Talley said.

But Gadson and Pope say the fines need to be larger.

“The fine don’t fit the punishment,” Pope said.

He pointed out that there are four schools near the American Synthetic Rubber facility:  Stephen Foster, Cane Run Elementary, John F. Kennedy Montessori and Carter Traditional Elementary.

“Why are you just now fining these people? They should have been fined right at the time and for each incident and it should be way more than they are paying now,” Pope said.

He compared it to receiving a fine for burning leaves in your front yard.

“That would hurt you substantially,” he said, “The fines that they are given for doing harm to people, being a nuisance to people, that’s pocket change to them.”

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