For years, Louisville has been known for fast horses, fine bourbon, a love of college basketball — and lousy air.
People who lived near a complex of chemical plants, called Rubbertown, put up with odors, burning eyes and fears that their every breath might contribute to asthma, cancer or other illnesses.
But that began to change about a decade ago, after a minister from the predominantly African-American neighborhoods around Rubbertown organized protests, demanding aggressive government action to clean up the toxic air and reduce the chemical emissions from factories.
The campaign soon ranged beyond those neighborhoods, attracting the help of university scientists, industry representatives and government officials. It has led to an ambitious and successful anti-pollution effort that has gained national attention.
In 2000 and 2001, extensive air monitoring at three public schools and nine other sites confirmed what many in Louisville had suspected: High levels of chemicals were putting residents, young and old, at an unacceptable risk of cancer and other illnesses, especially in the neighborhoods closest to Rubbertown, on the city's west side.
Louisville's Strategic Toxic Air Reduction (STAR) program, launched in 2005 after years of squabbling and negotiations, has dramatically cut emissions of the city's most risky chemical and promises to curb others by the end of 2011. Louisville's efforts have become a national model: The U.S. Government Accountability Office singled out the city's handling of toxic air in a 2006 report, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency honored Louisville for its new program in 2007.
"Ounce per ounce, the Louisville program packs a greater punch than almost any other community's program," says S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, whose members include pollution-control officials across the country.
Since 2005, concentrations in the air of the biggest chemical culprit found by the monitoring, the human carcinogen 1,3-butadiene, have fallen more than 75%. "That's a huge reduction," says Russell Barnett, director of research for the University of Louisville's Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development. The university ran the air-monitoring program and has continued to operate a smaller network of monitors ever since.
Even the local chamber of commerce — Greater Louisville Inc. — now embraces the program, despite early objections from some of its members who predicted job losses and plant relocations. Of the city's 37 biggest industrial-pollution sources, including chemical plants, automotive assembly lines and a large dry-cleaning operation, 32 have reported that they will comply with the STAR program's strict standards by Dec. 31. The remaining plants appear to be close to compliance, says the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District.
"We put as much focus on attracting people as we do businesses to the community," says Joe Reagan, CEO of Greater Louisville Inc. "We all know how important quality of life is. So to be able to come up with a program that balances everyone's desires for clean air and to be able to provide quality jobs is what we achieved."
What it cost
To be sure, STAR has cost Louisville companies money; some plants have spent several million dollars each to pay for new pollution controls. American Synthetic Rubber, which had been the city's largest industrial source of butadiene, has spent about $5 million on new pollution controls, including a super-efficient burner that helped lower its emissions of the chemical from 150,000 pounds in 2000 to about 7,000 pounds last year.
And there are still naysayers. Greg Brotzge, a spokesman for the Louisville Chemistry Partnership, says the city damaged its reputation in some business circles by pushing so hard for the STAR program. "There was a perception created that Louisville wasn't interested in manufacturing anymore," he says. "To some extent, that perception still exists.. .. The benefits we are going to get from (the program) could have been done in a more cooperative and less heavy-handed manner."
But the threatened job losses never materialized, city and industry officials agree. When Rohm and Haas, a chemical company, announced earlier this year that it was shrinking its workforce at its western Louisville plant by two-thirds, cutting 220 of 353 positions, plant manager Jane Bowen said STAR was not a factor. Instead, she described the downsizing as corporate belt-tightening blamed on high energy costs and the housing slump.
The Louisville effort started at the grass-roots level in the early 1990s. Leading the charge was the Rev. Louis Coleman, a civil rights leader whose father worked many years for DuPont in Rubbertown. Coleman, the longtime head of Kentucky's Justice Resource Center, made fighting the companies and pressing regulators for change a major cause. Until his death in July at the age of 64, Coleman asserted that western Louisville residents, both African-Americans and lower-income whites, had "borne a disproportionate burden of toxic emissions for decades."
But proof was elusive. Two studies conducted in the 1990s — one by the Louisville-Jefferson County Board of Health, and the other by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — had failed to confirm a link between the emissions and residents' health problems.
Then two key figures got involved. Arnita Gadson was hired through the University of Louisville to lead the newly created West Jefferson County Community Task Force, which made air monitoring a priority, and environmental attorney Art Williams, a former high-ranking state official, signed on as director of Louisville's air-pollution agency.
The task force met monthly, sometimes drawing as many as 25 or 30 people, including Williams and representatives from at least three of the Rubbertown companies.
"It was clear that if there was a problem, we didn't have any evidence that was sufficient to establish that," says Williams, who retired earlier this year. "And if there was a problem that needed to be solved, that it was inconceivable we could solve it unless we had the evidentiary foundation."
And, during that period, he says, the Rubbertown companies were generally complying with the terms of their air permits.
The meetings were sometimes tense, with residents not trusting the local air-pollution agency, the University of Louisville or the chemical plants' representatives, Gadson recalls. Over time, however, she said people began to see each other as individuals, adding that from the beginning she drew a line against allowing personal attacks. "I said, 'We deal with issues, not people, in here,' " Gadson says.
Williams says one of the keys to the task force's success "may sound a bit trivial" but was that its meetings were held over supper. "It's difficult to break bread together and fight a lot," Williams says. "We were all in this together, even though we had different points of view."
The group cobbled together grants from state and local governments and the EPA, eventually getting about $2 million for the air-monitoring project, which included a risk assessment of the findings by a private consulting firm, Sciences International. Williams says the process was slow but deliberate. It took several months, for example, to get everyone to agree on the 12 monitoring stations, where air samples would be taken every 12 days for at least a year.
The school sites were chosen because children tend to be especially sensitive to chemical pollutants, Williams says. "Kids are important. … And if you can protect them, you can protect everyone."
The task force also had to agree on how much risk was too much. The members set that mark at levels that would cause one additional cancer case among 1 million people, a common but stringent national standard for such a study.
The EPA became a partner, contributing money and assigning staff. At the same time, EPA officials in Atlanta conducted a separate regional study that in 2002 ranked Louisville's Jefferson County atop 736 counties in eight Southeastern states for health risks from hazardous air pollutants.
The local newspaper, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, launched a year-long series on toxic air in 2003 by obtaining the task force's first year air monitoring data and publishing the first analysis of it in May that year. The report identified butadiene as a serious risk. Within 10 days, the city released Sciences International's official draft report confirming butadiene as a problem, as well as a variety of other chemicals in the air.
The final report issued six months later identified 18 chemicals of concern and estimated the risk from long-term exposure at up to 690 additional cancer cases per 1 million people.
The risk level found at Farnsley Middle School was 250 in 1 million, and it was 140 in 1 million at both Martin Luther King and Cane Run Elementary Schools, the study found. At Cane Run, seven chemicals were detected at levels greater than the city's 1 in 1 million risk goal.
"It was scary," recalls Traci Priddy, president of the Parent Teacher Association district that serves Jefferson County Public Schools. She was living near Farnsley Middle School at the time. The report "showed that what the residents had been saying was true. … People were complaining … they weren't getting heard." But as the risks were documented, she says, that began to change.
In 2003, Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson had summoned representatives of three Rubbertown plants that emitted butadiene to his office, and the companies — American Synthetic Rubber, Zeon and Rohm and Haas — soon announced they would voluntarily reduce their emissions.
Those voluntary plans later stalled as details were presented to the city's air-pollution control board, and as Coleman's group and a spinoff organization, Rubbertown Emergency Action, pressed for something more permanent and legally enforceable.
The spinoff group collected thousands of signatures on petitions and got citizens to pack public meetings, sharing their stories of living near chemical plants and health problems they blamed on the pollution. It organized citizens to stage theatrical protests and pressure the local air district, the mayor and Louisville Metro council.
"A lot of people tried to trivialize the role of (the group) by describing us as agitators," says Eboni Cochran, one of Rubbertown Emergency Action's leaders. "An agitator to me just sounds like a troublemaker who has little to no thought but just wants to complain about everything. In fact we were very well-informed and strategic."
Along the way, there was also a high-stakes drama in the Kentucky legislature. Several months after the local air board unanimously voted in June 2005 to adopt the STAR program, a Republican state senator from Louisville, Dan Seum, put forward a bill intended to kill the program. The senator's bill passed 27 to 10 in the state senate in 2006. Another version, one less hostile toward STAR, passed the Kentucky house. But, in the end, the two legislative bodies were unable to agree, and both bills died
During that session, Ford Motor, which employed as many as 9,000 workers in Louisville at the time, supported Seum's legislation, as did the United Auto Workers and some Rubbertown companies.
Abramson, the mayor, says the fight was worth it. "We pushed for a responsible approach," he says. "We wanted measurable standards and timelines. It seems to have already reduced the levels of some toxic chemicals. The air is safer."
Gwen Goffner, in her third year as principal at Cane Run Elementary, says she hasn't heard any recent complaints about air quality. "People have really taken action," she says. "Maybe that's why I'm not hearing any concerns."
Rules are 'very aggressive'
Like many American cities, Louisville has seen its industrial base shrink. Its remaining industrial facilities include the Ford plants, a plant that makes General Electric appliances and the Rubbertown complex, whose 10 plants turn out products ranging from tire rubber to plastics used in automotive manufacturing to ingredients in latex paint.
STAR requires about 200 businesses to calculate whether their emissions exceed risk-based standards based on the potential to harm neighbors. If so, the companies must lower that risk or seek a variance. The biggest 37 plants were required to move first. Some accepted tighter emission limits in their permits that did not result in any actual cuts in what they could send up their stacks but gave the community assurances against any future spikes in pollution.
"The STAR limits are very aggressive," says American Synthetic's plant manager Jim Dunbaugh, adding that the program caused plant engineers to review all aspects of their operations. In fact, Louisville's standards are among the most stringent in the nation.
The Rubbertown companies, the main target of STAR, still collectively employ more than 1,500 workers — down from a peak of more than 4,600 in 1968 — in jobs that often pay more than $65,000 a year plus benefits.
Next up under STAR: Scores of businesses with more moderate emissions will be required to evaluate their health risks. The district is also developing rules to reduce engine idling — part of a strategy to target pollution from cars, trucks, buses and construction equipment. It's considering other actions to tighten vapors from smaller dry cleaners.
Williams, who is now embarking on an international consulting career, says he's pleased with what Louisville was able to accomplish. He says it was because "many elements" fell into place.
"There was strong public concern and support for action," he says. "The media focused on it. The evidentiary foundation was solid. Political support came along from the mayor. … I don't think you can find this collection of elements that come together at the same time in many communities."
James Bruggers covers the environment for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal