LOUISVILLE, Kentucky—A month before thousands began marching here, day after day, to protest the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a woman here named Breonna Taylor, a professor at the University of Louisville was a co-author on a study that identified another killer targeting Black lives: toxic pollutants.
Along with race, crime and income, the research found that proximity to an industrial neighborhood in the city called Rubbertown had a major effect on life expectancy, accounting for as much as three quarters of a 10- to 12-year reduced life expectancy in poor and mostly Black neighborhoods, compared to richer, white neighborhoods.
Among the demonstrators, demands for racial justice in policing and environmental justice quickly merged in Louisville, a city with a history of environmental injustice as striking as any in America.
State Rep. Charles Booker, a Democrat who grew up near the smokestacks of Rubbertown, has emerged from the recent demonstrations—and being tear-gassed with protesters—with new momentum in his quest to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican and also a Louisville resident.
Running up to Tuesday’s Democratic primary, environmental justice has been a big part of Booker’s campaign against opponent Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot.
“The communities that have been marginalized and harmed the most have to be in a position of decision making and lead the way forward,” he said. “I am encouraged, as painful as this moment is. We have to look at this holistically.”
Three years ago, city officials here looked at various socio-economic factors, as well as the environment, and documented startling disparities of as much as 10 to 12 years in life expectancy between neighborhoods.
John Gilderbloom, the University of Louisville professor, dug more deeply into these differences in the study he and two co-authors published in April, honing in on the question of how much of Louisville’s lifespan disparity can be explained by living in polluted neighborhoods.
They found that one of the major causes of premature deaths was the proximity to Rubbertown’s toxic contaminants, an effect that ranked fourth after the risk factors of race, income and crime. Living near old, contaminated brownfield properties also had an effect on life expectancy.
Taken together, living near Rubbertown and near brownfield sites explained as much as 75 percent of the lifespan variance among Louisville neighborhoods, according to their paper, published in Local Environment, an international scientific journal that deals with issues related to justice and sustainability.
“Neighborhoods matter,” said Gilderbloom, the University of Louisville professor of planning and urban affairs, because they “shape our life chances. People want health, prosperity and safety. West Louisville is one of the worst in the nation, whether you are white or Black.”
Two of the most prominent chemical companies operating at Rubbertown—Michelin North America’s American Synthetic Rubber Co. and Dow Chemical—cited their plants’ deep cuts in emissions in recent years and community partnerships as examples of their companies’ commitments to being good neighbors.
“Our track record demonstrates that ASRC should be seen as a good citizen and a model manufacturer,” said Megan Bagwell, spokeswoman for Michelin.
Dow listens and communicates with its neighbors through a Rubbertown community council, said Dow spokeswoman Ashley Mendoza.
But Eboni Cochran, who has been a leader of a watchdog group called Rubbertown Emergency Action since the 2000s, said investigations into pollution violations by the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District still take too long, and odor enforcement is lax.
By its own acknowledgement, the air district struggles to get a handle on curbing odors that deprive residents of enjoying their yards and can seep into homes.
“People who are supposed to be protecting us are not doing that,” Cochran said. “Police officers are seen as protection, but for us they are seen as a potential threat. The air pollution control district, through our eyes, is supposed to protect us from the emissions of air toxics, but when it plays out, they seem to resist and push back on what the community feels best.”
Arnita Gadson, the executive director of the West Jefferson County Community Task Force, a group that worked with local officials, the University of Louisville and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a landmark air pollution study and risk assessment in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said it is worth noting that people born in west Louisville since 2005 have a pollution burden that’s much less than their parents’ or grandparents’.
That’s progress, she said.
But, she said, Louisville needs to restore a comprehensive toxic air monitoring program it hasn’t had for six years. Monitoring gives the community “a lot more confidence” that the regulatory programs are working, while possibly uncovering new pollution risks, she said.
Gadson said she’s worried about the cumulative effects of mixtures of chemicals that are coming from multiple sources of pollution.
For their part, air district officials said they have one new air monitoring station set up near the chemical plants, but are working out technical kinks. They have also begun a new, “multi-pollutant” dialogue with business and community members aimed at bringing the city into compliance with federal air standards for ozone.
That could further reduce toxic air contaminants, said Rachael Hamilton, the air district’s assistant director. “We do things every day and we are not done,” she said. “It is more a continuum of work.”
The air district’s programs are but one part of the community’s “largest need to rectify past issues,” Hamilton said.
Those “past issues” go back more than a 100 years to a city in which the law prohibited Blacks from buying homes in predominantly white areas. Environmental injustice and segregation go hand-in-hand, and Louisville continues to be very segregated, with nearly half its population living in “extreme segregation,” according to a 2014 Metro Human Relations Commission report.
While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the racist housing law in 1917, an array of segregationist policies flourished in the decades that followed. There were zoning and banking policies like red-lining that blocked investment in neighborhoods with Black, immigrant and low-income residents, and the bulldozing of a Black business district under the banner of urban renewal to create the expansive 9th Street corridor that still serves as a physical, racial and economic divide.
“You take zoning, you take real estate practices, you take government policy and all of this had a laser-like focus on herding Black people into small areas, and herding them into areas that were not desirable,” said Cathy Hinko, executive director of Louisville’s Metropolitan Housing Coalition, which advocates for fair and affordable housing.
Among those areas are neighborhoods near a complex of chemical plants known since World War II as Rubbertown.
At the start of the war, in the early 1940s, easy access to roads, rail lines and the Ohio River led the federal government to select Louisville for rubber production, using alcohol from the state’s bourbon industry as a raw material.
Unlike most cities, Louisville has its own air pollution regulator, the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District, whose roots go back to the founding of a city “smoke commission” in 1945, when coal was burned everywhere.
In the late 1940s, chemical companies started buying surplus government industrial plants, which, by the 1950s, were spewing out some 21 million pounds a month of “gases, vapors, and mists,” according to a 1958 study by the U.S. Public Health Service.
By contrast, in recent years, all industrial plants in Louisville have emitted between 3 million and 5 million pounds of toxic emissions annually.
In the early 1960s, thousands of white residents began fleeing for the suburbs, an option that Black residents didn’t have, because white real estate agents were refusing to sell homes to them.
As chemical plant production increased, there were deadly explosions, train derailments of rail cars containing deadly poisonous gases, fires, leaks requiring citizens to shelter in their homes and ever-present acrid odors.
By the 1990s, as the environmental justice movement gained momentum nationally, there were more than a dozen different kinds of chemical plants operating in Rubbertown, employing thousands, along with other polluting factories in west Louisville.
The area was and is home to the largest sewage treatment plant in the state—one with a history of odor complaints—and a federal Superfund toxic waste dump. There were three coal-fired power plants that spread particulates over west Louisville, and warehouses for the aging of bourbon whose wafting vapors, romantically called “the angel’s share,” fed a fungus that mottled homes and businesses with black spots.
West Louisville residents had had enough.
Fighting for Their Rights to Life and Health
The late Rev. Louis Coleman of Louisville’s Justice Resource Center, a fiery Black pastor and civil rights leader, led the growing movement for environmental justice in the 1990s. In addition to the industries, he and other activists found a logical target for their outrage—the Louisville air district.
The district’s monthly board meetings were often tense. Residents came with protest signs and face masks, not unlike those worn today to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. They told stories of their illnesses, or their family members’ or neighbors’ illnesses, including asthma and heart conditions, and blamed the pollution.
But authorities began to listen—and work on the problem. The West Jefferson County Community Task Force was created and, with local officials, the University of Louisville and the EPA working closely together, embarked on a landmark air pollution study and risk assessment in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“The biggest issue I had wasn’t necessarily the politicians, it was the epidemiologists and toxicologists” recalled Gadson, the task force’s executive director. “They were saying the people were already unhealthy and it was their fault.”
The task force report was finished in 2003, and it found health risks from long-term exposure to be hundreds of times higher than state and local officials deemed acceptable. The report identified one cancer-causing chemical, 1,3-butadiene, as the major threat.
Three of the monitors in the study with elevated readings were at public schools.
Pressure mounted on Louisville air regulators to act, as Rubbertown became a new poster child for the environmental justice movement, joining Louisiana’s even greater concentration of petrochemical that have long been dubbed “cancer alley.”
During that time, the environmental justice movement in Louisville and nationally helped redefine “environment” to include where people live, work, worship and go to school, said Michelle Roberts, who has worked on Rubbertown issues for 20 years and is national co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance.
“These folks were literally fighting for their rights to life and health for their beloved communities,” Roberts said.
In one dramatic moment, Roosevelt Roberts, a civil rights activist, had stood up at a public meeting in 2004 and started questioning public officials about pollution at a chemical plant when he fell to the floor in obvious medical distress.
Louisville’s top public health official, who happened to be speaking at the meeting, crouched by his side and began emergency procedures. Others formed a circle, held hands and prayed. Roberts died later that day, his heart having failed, at age 64.
Louisville’s air quality chief at the time, Art Williams, was at the meeting, trying to help Louisville navigate through a response to studies that found local health risks from toxic air to be among the highest in the nation.
“It could not have driven home more powerfully the importance of that issue and willingness of people to put their lives on the line for improvement,” Williams recalled.
The following year, the air district’s board approved its Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program, or STAR. It requires major polluters to calculate the health risks from what comes out of their stacks or leaky valves and keep them below certain strict risk levels.
For a plant with a single STAR-regulated chemical, the risk must not be more than 1 in one million from long-term exposure; for plants with multiple regulated chemicals, the limit is 7.5 in one million.
They acted after Rubbertown Emergency Action went door-to-door collecting signatures on petitions, organized demonstrations and earned the backing of faith communities.
Williams credits “strong and outspoken leadership from the community,” support from former mayor Jerry Abramson, a strong air district staff and board, and a lot of media attention, particularly from The Courier Journal, over the five years leading up to the board’s decision to tighten the rules on toxic air.
Bennie Ivory was the editor of the newspaper then. Ivory, who is Black, said that growing up in the deep South, he had seen the many inequities in quality of life between Black and white people.
“That never left me,” he said.
Ivory had arrived in Louisville in 1997 and “started hearing stories about Rubbertown and nobody was listening—all kinds of respiratory problems and cancer and all the comments were coming from the West End,” he recalled.
He made sure the matter stayed on the front page.
“You don’t do two or three stories and walk away from an issue like that,” said Ivory, who retired in 2013. “This was a story that covered generations. That is what newspapers are supposed to be about, bringing that kind of change.”
The district’s work “clearly took place in an explicit framework of environmental justice,” said Williams, who is retired from government service. “It wasn’t subtle. It was obvious and clear.”
In the end, he said, “there was no place for the community leaders to hide from it.”
‘People Have Lived in Sacrifice Zones’
In the years since the STAR program went into effect, local industries in the Rubbertown area and across the city have reduced their toxic air emissions by 76 percent, according to the air district.
Total emissions of cancer-causing 1,3-butadiene, identified as the top chemical of concern in 2003, have fallen 98 percent in 20 years, according to a pollution inventory maintained by the EPA. But there is also broad agreement that environmental health and other inequities in west Louisville remain.
Mustafa Santiago Ali, who worked 24 years with the EPA, including in senior environmental justice positions, and left with the arrival of the Trump administration, said pollution “hot spots” remain and there are legacy health burdens to address. “People have lived in sacrifice zones,” he said.
STAR “was a strong step forward” that “doesn’t correct the historical damage that’s been done,” said Keith Talley Sr., the Louisville air district’s executive director, an African American who grew up in west Louisville.
The street demonstrations that erupted following George Floyd’s killing by a police officer in Minneapolis had an especially searing resonance in Louisville, where police had shot and killed Breonna Taylor during the execution of a no-knock warrant at her apartment back in March.
The protests, mostly peaceful, have turned chaotic and tense at times. Seven people were shot during one night of protests, although it is still not clear by whom. Police have sometimes used tear gas and pepper balls to break up crowds.
George Floyd’s dying plea—”I can’t breathe”—has had an historic resonance here, as well.
Shameka Parrish-Wright has been downtown every day for more than three weeks and said pollution and environmental justice has been on her mind amid the chants of Breonna Taylor’s name. Three of Parrish-Wright’s six children were born since she moved to Louisville in 2002. Each has asthma and one has seizures, she said.
“It’s not happenstance,” she said.
Robert Bullard, professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and a leading voice on environmental justice for decades, said the communities where police are shooting Blacks are the same communities with high asthma rates, greater incidences of diabetes, stroke, and more poverty, and deaths from Covid-19.
“Forty years ago, people were saying ‘we can’t breathe, we are suffering from asthma, we are choking, you are killing us,’” he said.
Now, with the latest protests, Bullard said that he is “seeing across the board, people are talking about dismantling this violent system of racism, not just when a police officer kneels and chokes a person to death. It’s violence when you have all this pollution pumped into a neighborhood, and people are choking.”
Two decades ago, Louisville officials were under intense pressure to do something about air pollution and other toxic contaminants in Rubbertown. They may find themselves facing even greater pressure now, with Black elected leaders demanding police reform, racial justice and further work on cleaning up the city’s environment.
“Black folks get tired of complacency,” said Jessica Green, a Democrat who represents the Rubbertown area on the Louisville Metro Council. That may be changing, she said.
“Since there is such a highlight on all of the injustices that are going on in Black and brown communities, now is the time to strike while the iron is hot, on all the issues.”
State Rep. Booker, the 35-year-old African American from west Louisville who is running for U.S. Senate in the Democrartic primary next Tuesday, is in some sense an heir to all of Louisville’s environmental activists who have come before him.
In a campaign that knits calls for police and environmental justice closely together, Booker said, “we have to understand the progress we made, and the challenges we face, are structural.”
Top photo credit: Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal