The History of Air Pollution Control in Louisville

By the 1940s, in Louisville and around the country, the issue of air pollution had become unavoidable. Soot, smoke, and toxic pollutants blanketed cities, homes were often still heated with coal, and industrial sources of air pollution increased to meet the needs of World War II. In Louisville, an industrial complex now nicknamed "Rubbertown" formed to produce synthetic rubber for the military. The war eventually ended, but industry and air pollution remained. 

The government in Louisville had no legal authority to address air pollution until 1945, when the Louisville Board of Aldermen passed a smoke ordinance. The ordinance created the Louisville Smoke Commission and tasked it with figuring out ways to address air pollution. The Commission had limited power, with no control over private residences or jurisdiction outside city limits.

In 1952, the Kentucky legislature passed KRS Chapter 77 authorizing the formation of county air pollution control districts. The Air Pollution Control District of Jefferson County was created and staffed with air quality professionals to study and improve air quality in Louisville. It was governed by the new Air Pollution Control Board, which replaced the Louisville Smoke Commission. The Board’s jurisdiction expanded air pollution regulation beyond the city limits to include all industrial plants in Jefferson County. The APCD starting measuring air pollution levels in the city, which was done at the time by collecting soot in buckets hung from lampposts.

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The Clean Air Act was integral in improving
Louisville's air quality.

In 1956, the APCD took part in a pioneering air pollution study that brought city, county, state, and federal agencies together to understand pollution in Rubbertown. The study ran for two years and produced a wealth of information including an inventory of air pollution sources in Louisville, an air sampling program, a network to collect meteorological data, and threshold concentrations for odor nuisance. The study made several recommendations to improve air quality, including:

  • Instituting emissions limits for solid particles.
  • Limiting the sulfur content for coal burned.
  • Implementing controls for hydrocarbon vapors.
  • Establishing odor nuisance and open burning regulations.
  • Considering air pollution in planning and zoning decisions.
  • Education and outreach programs.

In 1966, the Kentucky Air Pollution Control Commission was created and adopted a regulation requiring that all discharges of material into the air must be reported and registered with the Commission. This included emissions in Louisville. In 1968, the state of Kentucky reaffirmed the authority of the Air Pollution Control Board to control air pollution in Jefferson County.

1970 was full of air pollution control milestones. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the United States' primary federal air quality law to this day. In Louisville, the APCD began requiring permits for construction and operation of air pollution sources, banned leaf burning, and completed its first emissions inventory for Jefferson County. A year later, the APCD began ticketing drivers for smoking vehicles.

In 1977, the Clean Air Act was amended. The new rules required several large-scale pollution reduction programs in Louisville, including the Vehicle Emissions Testing (VET) program. Starting in 1984, the VET program required annual emissions tests from all vehicles in Louisville, except construction and farm equipment. The amendments also required the APCD to review traffic-control plans for new development.

In 1990, the Clean Air Act was amended again. The federal government began to tighten tailpipe emission standards for vehicles and required the sale of cleaner-burning gasoline in the most polluted cities. In 1995, Louisville gas stations were required to sell reformulated gasoline to reduce smog-forming pollution from vehicle exhaust. The 1990 amendments also created the Acid Rain program to reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions nationwide as well as a federal program to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants.

In 2003, the city and county governments merged. The APCD, which was an agency of the Jefferson County government until merger, was renamed the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District.

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While there is still progress to be made, pollution levels
in Louisville have steadily decreased.

Despite progress made by implementing the Clean Air Act, concerns mounted about toxic emissions from the Rubbertown industrial complex in west Louisville. The complex was no longer the rubber-producing complex that aided in the country's military efforts, but a collection of private industry. 

In 2005, in response to the concerns of the public and the West Louisville Air Toxics Study, the APCD developed and implemented the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction Program (STAR), which remains one of the nation's most protective programs designed to regulate toxic air emissions from industrial sources. In the years since STAR was implemented, emissions of toxic air pollutants from industrial sources have dropped an estimated 80%

In an effort to continue to develop policy with greater input from the community, the APCD engaged stakeholder groups like the Air Quality Task Force (2003-2006)STAR Regulation 5.30 Stakeholder Group (2006-2007)Fine Particle Air Quality Task Force (2007), and the Idling Reduction Working Group (2008).

In late 2019, the APCD Multipollutant Stakeholder Group (MPSG) was formed to discuss current air pollution challenges and help determine what can be done to improve local air quality. The APCD will continue to use emission reduction recommendations in the Final Multipollutant Stakeholder Group Report to guide its work.

In November 2023, the APCD announced a new project, funded by EPA, to further address air pollution inequities in west Louisville, particularly in the neighborhoods near the Rubbertown industrial complex. During this three-year project, partners will complete an air pollution monitoring study meant to offer a direct comparison to the Wets Louisville Air Toxics Study completed in 2005. Results of the study will be used to develop and support policy recommendations for air pollution and land use to reduce air pollution exposure and help medical practitioners improve early detection and treatment options.


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