Louisville’s Super-Polluting Chemical Plant Emits Not One, But Two Potent Greenhouse Gases

The EPA’s uncoordinated greenhouse gas disclosures make it hard to determine the plant’s carbon footprint, and even confused the city’s technical consultants.

Louisville, Kentucky skyline as photographed from the Ohio River Greenway on July 16, 2015 in Clarksville, Indiana. Credit: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Louisville, Kentucky skyline as photographed from the Ohio River Greenway on July 16, 2015 in Clarksville, Indiana. Credit: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky—The Chemours Louisville Works emits a chemical feedstock and a separate gas byproduct that do more damage to the climate than 750,000 passenger vehicles, and far more than the Environmental Protection Agency’s main industrial greenhouse gas inventory indicates. 

Chemours’ most harmful climate super-pollutant is the byproduct, hydrofluorocarbon-23 (HFC-23), a potent greenhouse gas that produces 12,400 times more warming than carbon dioxide, the main chemical compound responsible for climate change.  

But the plant also emits hundreds of tons of hydrochlorofluorocarbon-22 (HCFC-22), a chemical ingredient in everything from Teflon to lubricants used on the International Space Station. In addition to being a climate super-pollutant that is 1,760 times more effective at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, HCFC-22 also destroys atmospheric ozone that helps protect the Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays.

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As such, its production was banned in the United States and other developed countries on Jan. 1, 2020 under an international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol. But, Chemours is exempt from that prohibition because the HCFC-22 produced in Louisville is used as a feedstock to make other products that do not damage the Earth’s protective ozone layer.   

In an article last month, Inside Climate News reported that the Chemours plant, in the city’s Rubbertown industrial area, emits so much of the byproduct HFC-23 that venting this single greenhouse gas likely had a greater climate impact than the emissions of all registered vehicles in the city, according to the main industrial greenhouse gas inventory kept by the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. 

But the report did not include information on the plant’s emissions of HCFC-22, which the EPA makes public in another database used for different purposes—generally, toxic releases to the air, land and water.  

When data from both EPA repositories are combined, Chemours’ emissions of the two chemicals have a greater annual impact on the climate than the yearly greenhouse gas emissions of 750,000 U.S. passenger vehicles—about 17 percent more than previously reported.

The new figure far exceeds the 519,000 cars and light-duty trucks registered in Louisville and accounts for approximately 14 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from the city, based on Louisville’s most current greenhouse gas inventory.

“I was kind of shocked,” Louisville Metro Council President David James, a Democrat who is also running for mayor next year, said after hearing of the plant’s high emissions of HFC-23. James said that he was even more concerned to hear of the additional HCFC-22 emissions and that he was looking into what city officials might be able to do about them. 

Thom Sueta, a spokesperson for Chemours, said the company has plans to reduce emissions of both chemicals as part of its corporate responsibility program.

“Chemours takes seriously our obligation to manufacture our products responsibly,” Sueta said in a written statement. “We understand and share everyone’s desire to act quickly to help address climate change.” 

Since 2018, he said, the global chemical company based in Delaware has been working toward company-wide goals to reduce its rate of greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent and cut its release of fluorinated organic compounds, like those emitted from the Louisville plant, by 99 percent.

HCFC-22 Mitigation in ‘the Planning Phase’

The confusion about the company’s greenhouse gas emissions results from the uncoordinated way the EPA informs the public about industrial chemical discharges.

The main industrial greenhouse gas inventory, kept by the agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, showed that in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, the plant emitted 251 metric tons of HFC-23. Those emissions have the same annual climate warming impact as 671,000 automobiles, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalency calculator, which is based on a national average for annual vehicle miles traveled.

Chemours Louisville Works' Carbon Footprint

Emissions of HCFC-22 are found in the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory. They add the equivalent yearly climate impact of another 113,000 passenger cars.

After Inside Climate News contacted the company last month about their HFC-23 emissions, Chemours announced a plan to reduce those emissions by more than 99 percent by the end of 2022, something the company had previously pledged to do in 2015.

Sueta also disclosed that the company is now working on a second emissions-reduction project, currently in “the planning phase,” that will reduce HCFC-22 emissions, with anticipated completion “by the end of 2024.” Sueta said the exact amount of emissions reductions remains unknown, pending further engineering design and analysis, but would likely reduce approximately 95 percent or more of HCFC-22 emissions.

The new emissions reduction project would capture and recycle the HCFC-22 that is currently emitted from the plant for reuse in the manufacturing process.

New federal regulations could soon require the company to destroy the HFC-23 that it emits. Federal regulations required production of HCFC-22 for most uses to cease as of Jan. 1, 2020, but production at the Chemours plant is allowed to continue under the feedstock exemption.   

Chemours’ ‘Talking Points’

Unlike most cities, Louisville has its own air pollution control agency, though it does not specifically regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District supports Chemours’ plans and timetables to voluntarily reduce its emissions of both chemicals, said Rachael Hamilton, the district’s interim director.

“Reducing these chemicals is important due to their impact on global climate change,” she said, adding that neither fluorocarbon is classified as a hazardous air pollutant or toxic air contaminant that the district would regulate.

The company has not revealed much about its plans for abating emissions of either greenhouse gas and has not submitted them or any related requests for permit changes to the air district.

“Generally speaking, APCD anticipates that there may be additional (greenhouse gas) regulations in the near future that may impact Chemours emissions” as part of the Biden administration’s focus on climate change, Hamilton said.

The EPA “plans to propose to establish a limit on byproduct emissions of HFC-23 (from HCFC-22 production) in a rulemaking later this year,” an EPA spokesperson said. 

Chemours has been in communication with the city over the issue since at least March 5, when the company shared “talking points” with Hamilton about the issue, as shown in email records obtained through a Kentucky open records law request by Inside Climate News.

Louisville’s 2020 greenhouse gas reduction plan suggests the state of Kentucky adopt a statewide program to control HFCs and methane, another potent greenhouse gas. James, the Metro Council President, said he wants to know more about the company’s emissions, how they are regulated, and whether there’s any role for Louisville to encourage faster emissions reductions. 

James said he would consider holding a hearing on the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions.  

The council has shown concern for climate change, calling for 100 percent renewable electricity for all its government operations by 2030, and 100 percent clean energy community-wide by 2040.

Environmental advocates, observing that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer declared a climate emergency in 2019, said they were concerned after they first learned about the HFC-23 emissions and now are even more concerned by the additional HCFC-22 emissions.

“I believe this issue should be at the top of the mayor’s list for this climate emergency,” said Eboni Cochran, a longtime environmental justice advocate with the group Rubbertown Emergency Action. “We need to get a hold of this situation locally at the same time as urging the federal government to close loopholes.  These two things are not mutually exclusive. This is part of what is creating the climate emergency that exists today.”

Climate advocates with national environmental organizations agree.  

“You can’t have these kinds of emissions,” said Durwood Zaelke, the president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, an environmental organization based in Washington. “They know how to collect, how to destroy and how to reduce their leaks and other emission sources. There’s a tremendous amount they can do much faster than a leisurely, 2024 stroll through the park. The park is not going to be there at that pace.”

Sueta, however, said proper installation of the pollution controls takes time.  

“These are large, multi-component systems so there are significant lead times to manufacture and ship all system components before construction work can begin,” he said. “That is reflected in the project timelines we have expressed.” 

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Sueta added that the HCFC-22 project is in an earlier stage of planning than the HFC-23 emissions reduction project and will therefore take more time to complete. 

Chemours pledged at a White House gathering in 2015 to eliminate its HFC-23 emissions at all production facilities and initiated plans to destroy the pollutant at its Louisville plant in 2018 but later shelved those plans.  

“One would hate to come to the conclusion that they dropped the project because of who was elected president in 2016, and they’re only paying attention again because of who has since been elected president,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Last month, the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington and London, called for Chemours to immediately end activities causing HFC-23 emissions.

Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA’s climate campaign lead, said knowledge of the additional emissions was cause for even greater concern.

It is illegal for air conditioner service technicians to purposely vent even small amounts of HCFC-22 when they are repairing older air conditioners that use the chemical as a refrigerant, Mahapatra noted.  

“If it’s illegal for them to knowingly vent, then it should be illegal for Chemours to vent this massive quantity of (HCFC-)22 as well,” she said.  

Installing Pollution Controls 

Chemours has declined to provide an estimate for what it would cost to reduce HCFC-22 emissions from the plant, Sueta, its spokesman said, because the engineering design and analysis is still in progress. Prior cost estimates by the EPA and the United Nations for HFC-23 mitigation at chemical plants in the U.S. and developing countries ranged from $5 to $10 million per plant.

Chemours made $1.1 billion in fluoropolymer and other “advanced materials” sales in 2020, according to the company’s latest annual financial report. The company, however, has also had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements from lawsuits in recent years related to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), used in Teflon and other coatings that have been linked to cancer and other illnesses.

In January, the company agreed to a $4 billion cost sharing agreement with its predecessor, DuPont, and Corteva, a 2019 spin off of DowDuPont, for any future liabilities over the next 20 years related to prior releases of PFAS.  

The company installed a $100 million pollution control system at a plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 2019 that reduced greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 490,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, Sueta said. The emissions reduction is nearly equal to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the HCFC-22 emitted from the company’s Louisville plant.

However, the pollution controls installed at the Fayetteville plant came after an investigation by state regulators into PFAS emissions from the plant and will also reduce PFAS emissions there by 99.99 percent.

Unlike PFAS, HCFC-22 and HFC-23 are not local air pollutants. They don’t cause immediate health hazards and don’t contribute to smog, a problem that has bedeviled Louisville for decades.

HCFC-22 is listed in the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory because it destroys atmospheric ozone. The agency does not include emissions of HCFC-22 in its greenhouse gas inventory because it is a “controlled substance,” an EPA spokesperson said.

The chemical is controlled—production of HCFC-22 was banned in 2020, except for a limited number of exceptions including production for use as a feedstock, as is the case at the Louisville plant. However, the federal government places no limit on the amount of HCFC-22 of HFC-23 that these facilities can emit, the spokesperson said.

Chemours’ Louisville Works is by far the largest emitter of HCFC-22 in the country, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. The company’s Washington Works, in Washington, West Virginia, and another Chemours’ subsidiary, Louisville Packaging, are also sources of HCFC-22 emissions, according to the latest EPA data.

The city of Louisville did not include emissions of HCFC-22 from the Chemours plant or from Louisville Packaging in it’s 2016 greenhouse gas emissions inventory. If the city had included this pollution, Louisville’s greenhouse gas emissions would have been 3 percent higher than what was actually reported that year, according to an analysis by Inside Climate News. 

The city’s consulting firm that conducted the inventory—Stantec—conceded that they did not include emissions of HCF-22 in their inventory and did not dispute Inside Climate News’ analysis. However, they did point a finger at the EPA in a written response provided by Will Ford, a city spokesman. 

“Our assumption was that the EPA’s (greenhouse gas) FLIGHT database is the best available data for GHG (greenhouse gas) inventories and that it is reliable and accurate,” the consultants said. 

Zaelke, of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said the EPA, or another government agency, needs to correct the HCFC-22 omission and any other similar errors. 

“It’s unacceptable to have emissions reported to one database and other emissions reported to another and not added together by some U.S. agency responsible for climate emissions reporting,” Zaelke said. “This is not a difficult task.”

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