The DuPont chemical plant in western Louisville will pay $1.1 million to settle a federal Clean Air Act complaint stemming from a major spill of dangerous hydrogen fluoride six years ago.
Half the money will be paid as a civil penalty, with the rest going toward eight local projects, including a $71,000 “green buffer zone” around the plant, according to a document that the U.S. Department of Justice said was filed in federal court in Louisville.
Blain Rethmeier, a Justice Department spokesman, said the settlement shows the Bush administration’s commitment to enforcing environmental laws and to helping “maintain the integrity of the nation’s infrastructure” and ability to respond to emergencies.
Several local agencies that responded to the release of 11,500 pounds of the highly toxic chemical on May 19, 1997, will share in the settlement money, as will a nonprofit group that has overseen a study of local air quality.
Local officials always try to make sure a portion of local penalties assessed by the federal government comes to Louisville, said Richard Bartlett, director of the Louisville Metro Emergency Management Agency. The agency he runs will receive $125,000 for a robot that can climb stairs, conduct video surveillance and fight hazardous materials fires.
Arnita Gadson, executive director of the West Jefferson County Community Task Force, which is overseeing the air-quality study, said she was pleased that the government and DuPont had finally completed their negotiations, and that money would be coming to help the task force continue its work.
The task force, which also operates an environmental information center in western Louisville, had requested $300,000, but will receive $130,000 over two years, along with $30,000 to build an environmental information Web site with another group — the industry-supported Rubbertown Community Advisory Council.
THE DUPONT plant, located on Camp Ground Road, is part of the large Rubbertown complex of chemical manufacturing facilities in western Louisville.
“We’ve known this was supposed to come our way for three years,” Gadson said. “But I gave up on it.”
The task force is a nonprofit group with support from industry, the University of Louisville, some local citizen groups, and the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District. Its study has, according to a draft report, found seriously elevated levels of hazardous air pollutants in Louisville’s air.
The settlement shows that “if you do something wrong, you pay for it,” said Peggy Bolton, president of the task force and the Rubbertown Community Advisory Council.
BUT SHE ALSO said that the public should realize that other businesses, not just those in Rubbertown, create pollution and have hazardous materials spills.
The Rev. Louis Coleman’s Justice Resource Center, which has been focusing attention on Rubbertown pollution, sought some of the settlement money but did not get any. Coleman said yesterday that the fine shows that “not all is well” in Rubbertown.
He took issue with the Justice Department spokesman’s assertion that the fine shows the Bush administration is serious about enforcing environmental regulations, saying that this case was a holdover from the Clinton administration.
Environmental Protection Agency spokesman John Millett said the legal action was brought under a provision of 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that Congress included in response to a 1984 disaster at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, where more than 2,000 people died.
THE PROVISION generally obligates companies to be careful not to release dangerous pollutants, said Art Williams, director of the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District.
While the district largely enforces the Clean Air Act in metro Louisville, he said federal officials sometimes opt to handle larger incidents.
A joint statement from the Justice Department and the EPA said the settlement stems from an incident when workers at the plant “blew out” a valve in a tank containing pressurized hydrogen fluoride.
The company was unable to contain or block the release of the chemical for almost 40 minutes, allowing 11,500 pounds of the chemical to get into the air. Four neighboring chemical plants were shut down and evacuated for several hours, and local officials told nearby residents and schoolchildren to stay indoors.
In a complaint filed yesterday along with a consent decree, the government alleged that DuPont violated the Clean Air Act by failing to identify hazards associated with a release of hydrogen fluoride during maintenance activities; failing to maintain a safe facility; and failing to minimize the consequences of the chemical release, the agencies said.
Bartlett described the accident as nearly “a worst-case scenario.”
HYDROGEN FLUORIDE is used in the production of chlorofluorocarbons. Short-term exposure to gaseous hydrogen fluoride can cause severe respiratory damage, according to the EPA.
At the time, emergency responders credited a quick response and favorable wind with preventing a disaster.
Plant manager Mike Sanchez was not available for an interview. However, in a news release, he was quoted as saying that the company had changed and improved processes.
“Our safety performance since May 1997 has been outstanding and is really a tribute to our employees and contract partners who are committed to safety excellence.”
Millett said the money earmarked for Louisville makes the settlement especially significant. It will be spent on such items as air monitors, rescue equipment, hazardous materials incident response training, laboratory equipment — and the community groups’ Web site.
CHARLIE HUNTON, facilitator for the Rubbertown Community Advisory Council, said he has been looking forward to working with the West Jefferson task force to develop the site. It would likely include pollution trend numbers, as well as information about what the companies make at their facilities and meeting notices for the advisory council, which meets monthly.
Among other recipients:
* Lake Dreamland Fire Department, $100,000.
* Louisville Fire & Rescue, $50,000.
* Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District, $35,000.
* Louisville Metro Health Department, $16,000.