LOUISVILLE, Kentucky—A chemical plant here that makes a raw material for everything from Teflon to lubricants used on the International Space Station also appears to do more damage to the climate than all of this city’s passenger vehicles.
The Chemours Louisville Works along the banks of the Ohio river is the nation’s largest emitter of a climate super-pollutant known as hydrofluorocarbon-23 (HFC-23). As a greenhouse gas, the chemical is 12,400 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the primary chemical compound responsible for warming the planet, and could be eliminated with low cost, existing technology.
Following inquiries about emissions from the plant by Inside Climate News, Chemours announced a plan Monday to curb those emissions by the end of 2022. However, the company hasn’t met its own commitment to install pollution controls since company officials pledged at a White House gathering in 2015 “to control and, to the extent feasible, eliminate by-product emissions of HFC-23 at all its fluorochemical production facilities worldwide.”
Following Monday’s announcement, the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington and London, called for Chemours to immediately end activities causing HFC-23 emissions.
“It is shameful that in 2021, a major multinational chemical company is unable or unwilling to control and contain its own chemical waste,” Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA’s Climate Campaign lead, said in a statement. “If Chemours is incapable of running this facility responsibly, it must immediately cease operations leading to these waste emissions.”
The company defended its record.
“Chemours operates with an imperative to be a responsible manufacturer, that includes our commitment to safe operations and continuous efforts to reduce our environmental footprint,” Sheryl Telford, Chemours’ chief sustainability officer, said in a statement. “This project is another important step on our journey to ensure we deliver essential products that address growing societal needs while manufacturing them responsibly.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer declared a climate emergency in 2019, telling a youth climate strike gathering that “we must take action now.” But the local air pollution control district he oversees has not pressed the company to eliminate the HFC-23 emissions, deferring instead to the state or federal government. The district was created in the early 1950s and enforces the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean-air standards but does not specifically regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Chemours’ Louisville Works was first opened by DuPont in 1941 to produce neoprene, or synthetic rubber. The federal government took it over for World War II and later sold it back to DuPont. In 2015, DuPont spun off Chemours, and the new company took over the Louisville plant’s fluorochemical production.
Chemours’ operations occupy a part of the former DuPont plant, which has an 80-year history in an industrial area of Louisville known as Rubbertown. Rubbertown is a sprawling complex of chemical plants amid networks of pipelines, storage tanks, rail lines and chemical reactors.
In its heyday, Rubbertown’s plants employed thousands of workers, but chemical production also spewed enough pollutants to warrant a federal public health study as early as the 1950s. Starting in the 1990s, Rubbertown emerged as a leading battleground for environmental justice activists, with neighboring lower-income Black and white residents demanding cleaner air.
HFC-23 is an unwanted byproduct resulting from the production of hydrochlorofluorocarbon-22, (HCFC-22) a chemical that, until recently, was widely used as a refrigerant in air conditioners. HCFC-22 also destroys atmospheric ozone which helps protect the earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. The production and use of the chemical was banned in the United States and other developed countries on January 1, 2020 under an international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol.
However, Chemours is exempt from the ban because the HCFC-22 produced in Louisville is used as a feedstock to manufacture Teflon and other fluoropolymers that do not damage the earth’s protective ozone layer. While these end products don’t damage atmospheric ozone, the HFC-23 produced as a byproduct at the plant has a tremendous climate impact.
Chemours vented 251 tons of HFC-23 in 2019, the most recent year for which information is available, according to data the company self-reported to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The emissions are equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 671,000 automobiles, according to the agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies calculator, based on a national average for annual vehicle miles driven.
That eclipses the 519,000 cars and light-duty trucks currently registered in Louisville. Unlike carbon dioxide, HFC-23 emissions can be easily abated through incineration.
A 2013 EPA report estimated that the cost to install a new HFC-23 incinerator at an existing chemical plant would be $4.8 million. A 2018 UN report concluded it would cost $9 million to build an HFC-23 incinerator in China with a 400 metric ton capacity, nearly twice the size of Louisville plant’s current emissions. Chemours made $1.1 billion in fluoropolymer and other “advanced materials” sales in 2020 according to the company’s latest annual financial report.
The amount of HFC vented at the Louisville plant is less than half of the total volume of HFC-23 produced at the plant. The company currently captures more than half of its HFC-23 emissions and transports the waste gas to an off-site incinerator for destruction, Thomas Sueta, a Chemours spokesperson, said.
Chemours is now seeking to expand its capture infrastructure, a process that Sueta said will take nearly two years to complete.
“Due to the scale of the system required to meet our production needs, the [nearly two year] time frame is required to finalize our planning, custom build the components of the technology, construct and install, and operationalize it,” Sueta said. “We have benchmarked our project plans against projects of similar scale and we are working with a more expedited time frame than similar projects.”
Chemours, however, was already in the planning stages of voluntarily building its own, on-site HFC-23 incinerator three years ago, according to documents obtained by Inside Climate News through a public records request. Those voluntary efforts, which were never completed, began after the commitments made by the company at the White House meeting in 2015.
Environmental advocates say further delays are unacceptable.
“If they can’t capture more than half, then they should stop making the other half until they figure out how to capture it,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, an environmental organization based in Washington. “I think we can speculate that cost has been the reason they haven’t accelerated this process, and to save money at the expense of the planet is simply not acceptable today.”
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Louisville, the rare city with its own air pollution control agency, responded to its toxic air and environmental justice concerns by extending its regulatory reach beyond the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and adopting a toxic air reduction program in 2005.
That program worked. Toxic emissions fell, as did health risks, according to authorities. But emissions of Chemours’ HFC-23 to this day remain unregulated locally.
Still, city officials and environmental advocates have known about the company’s oversized greenhouse gas emissions for years, and they were included in the city’s 2016 greenhouse gas inventory.
The city’s air district acted on toxic air because it addressed a problem that was “particularly a local concern,” said Rachael Hamilton, the Louisville district’s assistant director. The district is looking to the federal government for guidance on the broader challenge of greenhouse gas emissions, she said.
Federal regulations do not require HFC-23 to be abated, but that could soon change. In January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling on the State Department to send to the Senate for ratification the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an extension of the existing international agreement that phases down the use of HFCs. If ratified, the amendment would require U.S. plants to destroy HFC-23 “to the extent practicable.”
The Senate is expected to ratify the amendment, as similar legislation which addressed HFCs but did not require the destruction of HFC-23, passed both chambers of Congress in December with broad bipartisan support.
Meanwhile, Louisville’s April 2020 greenhouse gas reduction plan essentially punts the problem to the state government, suggesting the administration of Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, adopt a statewide program to control HFCs and methane.
Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet officials were not aware of the city’s recommendation for a new statewide regulatory program until it was brought to their attention by Inside Climate News, John Mura, a cabinet spokesman, said in a written statement.
Mura also said that cabinet officials were not aware “of any significant HFC-23 emission from the Chemours plant,” but are now in the process of investigating the issue.
Any state regulations would need approval from Kentucky’s conservative, Republican-dominated legislature—a legislature that’s shown little inclination to tackle climate change.
Eboni Cochran, a long-time environmental justice advocate in Louisville who lives near the Chemours plant, said she considers greenhouse gases a local threat to the health and safety of Louisville residents.
Noting that Louisville’s mayor has declared a climate emergency, she said the city should act now to curb the emissions. “When there is a threat, you don’t wait until the threat is right next to you,” she said.
“We have a unique opportunity to make a positive impact toward mitigation,” she said. “We need to regulate this greenhouse gas locally.”
Louisville environmental engineer Sarah Lynn Cunningham, executive director of the Louisville Climate Action Network, said she, too, would like to see city officials working with the company to get the HFC-23 emissions under control. She said she would also like the company to adopt a greater sense of urgency around HFC-23.
“It needs to be addressed,” she said. But regulatory burden, she added, should not fall entirely on Louisville.
The company is “not just making these chemicals for Louisville,” she said. “They are making them for the entire world. We shouldn’t have to grapple with this all by ourselves.”