Environment

On a clear afternoon in late March, Myzirria Abdul-Shaheed and her husband sat on a bench beside the concrete basketball court at California Park. The sounds of her two older kids scrambling over the playground crackled against the silence of an otherwise serene setting.

Abdul-Shaheed enjoys the park for its tranquility, fewer people, less interruptions, she said. It was also the first time she’d brought her nine-month old baby to the park, tucked inside a stroller, shaded from the sun.

For more than a century, Louisville’s parks have provided respite from the city. Once, they were quite literally a breath of fresh air, a space free from the soot, smoke and odors of urban living in the early 20th century.

Today, the air is indisputably cleaner, but the problems that still exist are also less visible to the naked eye.

Just a few blocks away from where Abdul-Shaheed and her children play, at 12th and Oak Street, there’s a plant that specializes in accelerating chemical reactions. It’s permitted to release 14 hazardous pollutants listed in the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2017 Toxic Release Inventory.

The human health risks posed by the Clariant facility on 12th Street are more than 10,000 times higher than the industry average, according to EPA data.

At least two of the chemicals increase the risk of cancer for those living nearby. There are nine other chemical and manufacturing facilities in the same ZIP code, each releasing its own toxic air pollution. This pollution is legal, and is regulated by the local Air Pollution Control District.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

But the combined emissions of these facilities for the neighborhoods near California Park contribute to the highest cancer risk in Jefferson County, and among the highest in the state, according to the EPA’s 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment, a study released in August.

Despite this, Abdul-Shaheed has never heard about these chemical plants. She said she’s not familiar with the increased cancer risks.

“I feel like it’s not fair at all because we have children. I don’t want my child to have a higher risk of cancer,” Abdul-Shaheed said. “Who wants that for their child? Who wants that for themselves?”

Despite significant reductions, chemical, manufacturing and power plants in west Louisville contribute to the highest increased cancer risk in Jefferson County, and among the highest in the state, according to EPA computer models of toxic air pollution.

Highest Cancer Risks In the State

Late last year, the EPA finished a national study looking at the cancer risks communities face from toxic air pollution. Researchers used 2014 emissions data to model and estimate these risks.

The National Air Toxics Assessment isn’t a good replacement for actual air toxics monitoring, which hasn’t been done on a large-scale, quality-assured basis in Louisville since 2013. But it does provide a snapshot of the most harmful pollutants and the areas of highest concern.

And one of those areas includes the neighborhoods surrounding the chemical plant at 12th and Oak streets. Four of the top five census tracts in Jefferson County facing an increased risk of cancer from chemical and manufacturing facilities are in the area around Clariant, according to the EPA’s assessment.

That means the people bearing the largest burden from the plant’s pollution are low-income or racial minorities: about 64 percent of the people living within a mile of Clariant’s 12th Street facility are people of color, and 62 percent are living in poverty.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

People with families like Abdul-Shaheed.

The affected neighborhoods include California, Limerick, Park Hill, Algonquin and Old Louisville.

Back in the park, Abdul-Shaheed stares down at a map of the increased cancer risks caused by the city’s chemical and manufacturing facilities.

“I definitely don’t think that it’s fair. I mean, the more richer neighborhoods, I see that it’s not really that big of an issue, or that big of a problem,” she said, “I feel like, what makes them more important than we are?”

Toxic Air Polluters

The total increased cancer risk for nearby neighborhoods because of Clariant is about four in a million, according to the Air Pollution Control District.

That means, if one million people were exposed to this concentration continuously for 70 years, four of them would likely contract cancer from this exposure, according to the EPA.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Now, when you add up the pollution from other nearby facilities in the ZIP code around California Park, that increases the cancer risk to somewhere between seven and 12 in a million — the highest cancer risk caused by facilities anywhere in Jefferson County, according to 2014 EPA data.

It’s also important to note that these facilities are not the only sources of toxic air pollution; they may not even be the largest sources. For example, when you combine facility emissions with those from mobile sources, like cars, lawn mowers, trains and airplanes, the total cancer risk reaches 46 in a million for those same neighborhoods around Clariant, again the highest in the county, and among the highest in the state.

Louisville’s air quality regulator, the Air Pollution Control District, permits these and other facilities to increase the cancer risk by as much as one in a million for each pollutant they release, or 7.5 in a million for all of the pollutants released at the facility.

The Air Pollution Control District says Clariant’s 12th Street facility is likely the largest source for the increased cancer risk based on the EPA assessment. Clariant emits the two pollutants that are largely responsible for the increased cancer risk, according to the EPA’s 2017 Toxic Release Inventory.

Both are metals released out of stacks as fine particulate matter. One is known as hexavalent chromium — the cancer-causing chemical made famous by legal clerk Erin Brockovich. In the 2000 movie based on Brockovich’s life, actor Julia Roberts plays the activist who fights for a community whose water is contaminated with the chemical.

At Clariant, that chemical and another carcinogenic chemical, nickel, are both released into the air.

In an interview, Clariant Manager Joe Weis agreed that hexavalent chromium and nickel compounds are both carcinogens. He also agreed that Clariant emits these chemicals. He said he does not, however, believe Clariant increases the cancer risk in the neighborhoods around the plant.

“I don’t think so because we are well within, actually well below the limits established by three different agencies,” Weis said. 

But these two things are not mutually exclusive. Clariant can both be within its permitted limits and still increase the cancer risk to the community.

Clariant has about 870 pollution control devices on its equipment, including filters that reduce pollution from particulate matter (like chromium and nickel), Weis said.

And Clariant is under the 7.5 in a million cancer risk limit set by the APCD.

“Everything we do to try to reduce emissions to zero, we try to work on that, that’s part of what we do,” Weis said.

But EPA data does suggest Clariant is increasing the cancer risk for nearby neighborhoods.

Ironically, one of the hundreds of goods Clariant manufactures is an air purification product designed to reduce industrial emissions.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Clariant Specialty Chemicals uses catalysts like those pictured to accelerate chemical reactions.

Increased Cancer Risk For West Louisville

As recently as 2005, the increased cancer risk from chemical companies was a lot higher. In the neighborhoods that border Rubbertown — the city’s chemical facility corridor — the risk was as high as 355 in a million, according to the Air Pollution Control District.

That means that between 2005 and 2014, the increased cancer risk from these facilities dropped from 355 in a million to a high of 12 in a million.

That 2005 data tracks closely with the highest rates of cancer deaths in Jefferson County, which were also clustered in west and south Louisville, according to 2011-2015 data from the 2017 Louisville Metro Health Equity report.

“You can see there is a really clear connection between our cancer map, which shows the rate of cancer diagnosis and cancer deaths, and where Rubbertown is,” said Aja Barber, administrator with Louisville’s Center for Health Equity.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Barber stresses that environmental pollution is just one of 11 root causes the center has identified as influencing health outcomes. Housing, transportation, criminal justice, food systems and education and other social determinants play a role in understanding the relationship between communities and health. Quitting smoking for example, is still generally the best way to reduce the risk of lung cancer, she said.

Often cancer is a lagging indicator of environmental quality. The cancer that people developed over the last decade can be the result of a lifetime of exposure.

And when you look back at the old air quality studies, you see that previous generations have faced far higher risks from toxic air. One air monitoring study of the Rubbertown area from 1956 reveals concentrations of carcinogenic chemicals like 1,3 butadiene and vinyl chloride were thousands of times higher than they are today.

But just because there have been reductions doesn’t mean people are safe, or that they don’t bear a disproportionate health risk from this pollution, said Eboni Cochran, co-director of grassroots group Rubbertown Emergency ACTion.

“You have to think about how bad it actually began. I mean you can have a 50 percent drop in pollution and still be subject to health hazards,” Cochran said.

That’s why testing for toxic air pollution is so important, she said. Testing is vital not just to hold companies accountable, but the regulatory agencies as well, Cochran said.  

The Air Pollution Control District has never done quality-assured, consistent monitoring for air toxics. The community group that was testing — the West Jefferson County Community Task Force — lost funding in 2013. Now, the Air Pollution Control District is working on installing one state-of-the-art air toxic monitor in West Louisville.

This is the second of several stories examining Louisville’s toxic air pollution and its disparate impacts. To read other stories in the series, click here. 

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