An unchecked release of toxic chemicals from any one of dozens of plants in the Louisville metropolitan area — from chemical plants to a commercial bakery — could sicken thousands of residents.
And the potential impact can go far beyond a company’s property, according to risk-management plans filed by the companies with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The plans outline what might happen if there’s a spill or some other kind of chemical release if everything goes wrong — a scenario that companies and emergency responders agree is not likely and has never happened in the metro area.
An uncontained chemical release is “extremely unlikely to occur,” said Perry Tempel, safety manager at the DuPont chemical plant in the Rubbertown industrial area of western Louisville. “That would assume we would have no emergency response, which would not be the case.”
But planning for accidents and understanding how they might affect surrounding neighborhoods gives the public, government and public-health coordinators a better idea of what could go wrong and how many people could be affected, officials told The Courier-Journal. That, in turn, helps them know how to respond in such an emergency, they said.
“It helps in comparing facility to facility, and what the potential impact may be,” said Brad Learn, assistant director of the Louisville Metro Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates emergency response.
His agency also conducts inspections of the facilities and reviews the risk-management plans to ensure that companies have taken safety precautions identified in the documents.
For this article, the newspaper reviewed all the risk-management plans for plants that have the ability to jeopardize people in six Louisville-area counties on both sides of the Ohio River. Plants were first required to file the plans in 1999, but some have updated them since. Plant managers are preparing to file updated submissions for a deadline this month.
New attention has focused on risk-management plans in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Proponents of federal chemical plant security legislation say the risk-management plans illustrate the need for a new law requiring companies to take certain steps to ensure their plants are safe from not only accidents, but terrorist attacks.
At the same time, some argue that all or portions of the plans, which are accessible to the public through the U.S. Department of Justice and other agencies, should be kept from the public to ensure terrorists never see them.
Among the six Kentucky and Indiana counties around metro Louisville, Jefferson County has the most industrial operations required to file plans outlining worst-case scenarios, the newspaper found.
Almost all of them “have improved their (chemical) storage and (safety) systems” in recent years, said Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson.
Especially since the 2001 terrorist attacks, many have conducted drills with local authorities, he said. In his view, “I think the community is safer today than it was just a few years ago.”
Even so, one environmentalist who is familiar with risk-management planning said the prevalence and potential reach of some of the chemicals would surprise many residents.
“People are likely to be pretty shocked when they realize that, for many of these types of chemicals, how many people could be hurt or affected,” said Leslie Barras, an environmental attorney and conservation chairman for the Sierra Club in Louisville. “The most surprising thing to people is when they realize hazardous materials are ubiquitous in the entire region.”
Who’s at risk
Nationally, the EPA has identified 123 facilities with worst-case scenarios where an accident could expose more than 1 million people to dangerous levels of chemicals. Approximately 700 plants — including several in Louisville — outline potential risks to more than 100,000 people.
The newspaper’s analysis of the risk-management plans for area companies found 33 reporting worst-case scenarios that could expose people to harmful concentrations of chemical vapors in Jefferson, Bullitt and Oldham counties in Kentucky, and Clark, Floyd and Harrison counties in Indiana.
When mapped, the risk plans show how far in any direction the toxic chemicals could sicken or kill people.
“The public should understand that not everyone living within a plant’s worst-case zones would be affected because, even in the unlikely event of a large toxic chemical release, the wind would blow vapors only in certain directions, and the vapor cloud would usually dissipate much more quickly than worst-case estimates would indicate,” said Jim Belke, a chemical engineer with the EPA’s Office of Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response.
But taken together, the toxic worst-case “vulnerable zones” cover nearly all of Jefferson County, most of Oldham County, and major portions of Clark, Floyd and Harrison counties, as well as northern sections of Bullitt County.
The risks range from small to large:
A plant food producer in Corydon, Ind., says up to 34 people could be sickened by a release of ammonia that could spread a half-mile from the plant.
DuPont’s plan counts as many as 810,000 people living in an area that could be affected by an uncontrolled release of hydrogen fluoride, possibly reaching 16 miles — most of the way across Jefferson County and well into Southern Indiana.
Dozens of plants fall in between those two extremes.
In the documents they file with the EPA, plant officials must also calculate vulnerable zones for more realistic scenarios, based on smaller, more likely releases, and show how they would prevent and respond to such accidents.
They also must disclose their five-year accident record.
Congress also intended the risk-planning requirements to improve communication among industrial plants and their neighbors, Belke said, adding that that has happened.
“We’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence (of plants) switching to less hazardous substances,” Belke said.
That’s happened locally.
For example, within the past five years, General Electric’s Appliance Park found an alternative to a chemical that could have sickened workers in the plant during a worst-case accident.
In the late 1990s, the Metropolitan Sewer District stopped using a rail car of chlorine — among the most dangerous chemicals in use — to treat wastewater at its Morris Forman plant in west Louisville. It now uses bleach instead.
The tank of chlorine “was a bomb waiting to go off,” said Bud Schardein, MSD executive director.
Another area wastewater treatment plant is planning upgrades that will allow it to use much less chlorine and another chemical, sulfur dioxide, and avoid having to file the risk-management plan.
New Albany, which is expanding its wastewater plant, plans to use ultraviolet light as a disinfectant, officials said.
But three of the four plants where an accident could affect the largest number of people in the six counties surveyed by the newspaper list chlorine in their worst-case scenarios.
They are Louisville Water Co.’s Crescent Hill treatment plant and the plants of Noveon and DuPont-Dow Elastomers in Rubbertown.
The worst-case scenario for Atofina Chemicals Inc. in Carrollton, indicated a release of chlorine could harm people as far as 25 miles from the plant, possibly reaching half of Oldham County.
Annis Banks, manager of the Atofina Carrollton plant, said her facility has “multiple layers of preventative measures” for handling chemicals such as chlorine, including automatic shut-off valves, sensors, alarms and an in-house emergency response team.
And the chemical’s overall safety record in the United States has been very good, said Arthur Duncan, vice president of safety, health and environment for the Chlorine Institute, which provides technical assistance to people who use and distribute chlorine.
“There have been typically, in the use of chlorine, maybe one death per year with workers, but it is used in many, many facilities,” he said.
Other area plants offered similar assurances about safety measures related to the chemicals they use.
At DuPont, Tempel said employees follow strict federal health and safety rules for handling the hydrogen fluoride used there. Cliff Hardaway, plant manager at Borden Chemical Inc. near Rubbertown, said, “Some of these standards are pretty tough.”
As for Rubbertown manufacturer American Synthetic Rubber Co., “We live and work here and are dedicated to maintaining the quality of life that we have come to cherish,” company spokesman James Crowley said in a letter.
Wary in Rubbertown
Such assurances don’t ease some residents’ concerns.
Eboni Cochran, who is active with Rubbertown Emergency Action, a group pressing environmental regulators and chemical companies to reduce pollution, said more should be done to reduce the risks.
“The public should be outraged, and they should be downtown” clamoring for more regulations and requirements that less dangerous chemicals be used, Cochran said.
Her group also is demanding that companies offer voluntary buyouts and relocation to residents who live closest to the Rubbertown chemical plants.
The memories of past accidents keep Rubbertown-area residents on edge, Cochran said.
An explosion at the DuPont plant 39 years ago killed 12 workers. In 1997, 11,500 pounds of hydrogen fluoride was accidentally released at DuPont, causing four neighboring chemical plants to be evacuated for several hours and nearby residents and schoolchildren being told to stay indoors.
Last year, an accident at Noveon on Bells Lane sent a cloud of hydrochloric acid vapors into the surrounding neighborhood; seven people working on the nearby Shawnee Expressway went to hospitals for treatment and observation.
Joyce Korfhage Rhea, however, said she thinks critics’ concerns are overblown.
Korfhage Rhea, who has been a member of the industry-supported Rubbertown Community Advisory Council since its inception in 1991, and who runs a youth center in the area, said she has confidence in the managers of the Rubbertown-area plants because they have fallen under scrutiny of local, state and federal regulators. She also noted that they have been meeting monthly with their neighbors for more than a decade.
“I don’t know one of those companies that can look me in the eye and say they are not following the rules,” she said, while also pointing out that the Rubbertown plants alone provide more than 2,200 jobs and products used widely in society.
“What would the world be like if we didn’t have plastics or rubber?”
While the three local worst-case scenarios that could hurt the largest number of people involve plants in Rubbertown, the federal documents show other risks scattered around the city and the other counties.
For example, in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood, the Swift & Co. meat processing plant on Story Avenue identified a worst-case risk from ammonia that could spread 1.4 miles.
Scott Tichenor, who lives and works about a mile away, said he was alarmed to learn that the plant’s vulnerable zone extends that far.
“Do they check the pipes?” Tichenor asked. “Do they check the valves?”
Plant spokesman Jim Herlihy, based in Colorado, said the company has gone 14 years without any ammonia spills large enough to report to authorities.
In eastern Jefferson County, Bakery Chef produces baked goods for fast-food restaurants at its Westport Road facility. There, a worst-case accident involving ammonia could spread the chemical 1.2 miles.
Kim Nicodemus, who lives in the new Forest Springs North subdivision, said knowing that a chemical release could reach her property would have “given her pause” before signing the mortgage papers.
But Bakery Chef managers said residents have nothing to worry about.
In addition to complying with environmental and safety regulations, the plant has recently installed new ammonia monitoring equipment, and workers have extensive training in responding to a spill or leak, said Edward A. Judice, manager of human relations, in a letter to the newspaper.
Overall, plant managers and industry officials said the EPA’s risk-management planning requirements have helped make communities safer.
“Some companies … learned for the first time what potential impact their facilities might have,” said Dorothy Kellogg, senior director of safety and security for the industry group American Chemistry Council. “I think it did open people’s eyes.”