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