Louisville, Kentucky, Moves Toward Cleaning Up Its ‘Gully of the Drums’ After More Than Four Decades

The long-ignored dumpsite is the country cousin of the notorious “Valley of the Drums,” which helped lead to the federal Superfund law.

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Sam Satterly investigates a hazardous waste dump site known as Gully of the Drums in Jefferson Memorial Forest, a public park in Louisville, Ky. Credit: Courtesy of Sam Satterly
Sam Satterly investigates a hazardous waste dump site known as Gully of the Drums in Jefferson Memorial Forest, a public park in Louisville, Ky. Credit: Courtesy of Sam Satterly

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LOUISVILLE, Ky.—City officials are taking their first public step toward cleaning up hazardous waste in a popular park after a local graduate student last year called out a 45-year comedy of errors by federal, state and local agencies that allowed the dumped drums and chemicals to escape remediation.

Louisville parks officials have a $68,000 plan to dig trenches and take soil samples in an area dubbed “Gully of the Drums.” The site sits about 700 feet from the notorious “Valley of the Drums,” where some 17,000 hazardous waste drums were discovered in the late 1970s on farmland 17 miles south of downtown Louisville, which were removed in one of the first major federal Superfund cleanups in the United States.

The EPA didn’t clean up the much smaller Gully of the Drums at the time. At least twice since then—after the Environmental Protection Agency had declared the Valley of the Drums cleanup a success—Kentucky environmental regulators and EPA officials found pollutants lingering in the soil above health and safety levels that would normally spur remediation.

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But at the site, which is in a public forest preserved as a tribute to area veterans, as many as 40 to 45 barrels remain in the woods, leeching what’s left of their toxic contents into the soil. The new study, if approved by the Louisville Metro Council, will involve taking soil samples near the visible drums as well as digging trenches to see whether unseen barrels or containers of toxic waste were also buried, and then testing the soil to see if that area has hazardous waste.

The Louisville Metro Council Thursday night received the proposed site assessment plan and referred it to its parks committee for review next week. That action alone signals that the city government is starting to take responsibility for a situation that most recently was brought to light by Sam Satterley, an Iraq War veteran and former graduate student at the University of Louisville.

In December, Satterley completed research on both dump sites as part of a graduate degree she earned in sustainability. Her thesis revealed previously untold stories about the origins of the Gully of the Drums—and how it shares a connection to the Valley of the Drums.

“When I saw it (the site assessment plan) on the council agenda, I was completely overwhelmed,” said Satterly, who has detailed decades of missed opportunities to clean up the Gully of the Drums.

She noted that the company poised to get the contract, Shield Environmental, did a similar site evaluation over a decade ago, wrapping it up in 2011, and found contamination that exceeded what would normally trigger a cleanup. 

The Gully of the Drums in Jefferson Memorial Forest, a Louisville public park. Credit: Courtesy of Sam Satterly
The Gully of the Drums in Jefferson Memorial Forest. Credit: Courtesy of Sam Satterly

But at that time, state environmental regulators, who had commissioned that study, dropped the ball and did not require a cleanup.

“I want to make sure this doesn’t fall through the cracks again,” Satterley said Friday.

Officials with the parks department and in the office of Mayor Craig Greenberg did not respond to several requests for comment on Friday. 

But in their request for the funding, city officials said Shield’s services “are critical” to the environment and “a remediation plan or cleanup of hazardous materials will be the likely outcome.”

For Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Seum Jr., whose district includes the memorial forest, cleaning up the hazardous waste is important for helping visitors feel safe at a time when he and other officials are making the park a regional destination.

“I believe we will get a good investigation and advice” from Shield, Seum said Friday. “I want to make sure (the forest) is environmentally safe.”

Seum said he also wants to make sure the environmental investigation is transparent, with results made public. 

He said language in the company’s proposal about needing a “non-disclosure agreement” or “confidentiality agreement” to “ensure that any information discovered related to on-site waste materials is not shared” beyond the project’s parties is confusing. “I’m going to look into that. We want it to be open.”

Greenberg, the Louisville mayor, has been previously criticized for his administration’s use of non-disclosure agreements.

Images of Valley of the Drums, along with the frightening revelation of chemical plant dumping in Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, led Congress in 1980 to pass the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund. The law taxed chemical and petroleum industries to pay for the program and EPA got the authority to directly respond to toxic dumps that threatened the public or environment, and then assess cleanup costs on the “responsible parties.”

Despite the Valley of the Drums cleanup, the dumping in what would become Jefferson Memorial Forest was never cleaned up.

Across the country, there are likely many such smaller dump sites such as the one in Jefferson Memorial Forest that “fell off the charts and went into oblivion” as EPA and states were inundated with reports of toxic dumps to investigate in the 1980s, said Louisville environmental attorney Tom FitzGerald, who has looked into legal issues related to the site.

In its 2011 report, Shield noted drums and other containers scattered along 300 feet of the forest floor. By then, the liquid wastes were gone, but testing of the soil near the drums found pesticides, PCBs and a mix of heavy metals at levels over what would normally require agency action. 

As recently as 2016, state environmental regulators had described Gully of the Drums as “an imminent threat to human health and the environment.”

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One of Satterley’s professors, Lauren Heberle, chair of sociology and an expert on Superfund cleanups, said she’s “very encouraged” that Louisville is poised to complete the original Shield environmental assessment from almost 15 years ago.

But she said the plan, which doesn’t call for new testing of groundwater or a nearby creek, “seems like a missed opportunity.” She also questioned why the project’s scope also does not include looking for the presence of PFAS or other toxic substances that they might not have been asked to test for before.

The proposal said that the previous study did not find contamination in groundwater or the creek at levels that warranted action. The new proposal assumes “nothing has changed dramatically” since 2011, Heberle said.

Heberle credited Satterley’s research and public presentation for spurring action. “I’m glad to see Louisville Metro government take responsibility for completing the assessment and hope they will also follow up on remediation in a way that cleans the site of any remaining toxic or hazardous materials.”

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