The History of Air Pollution Control in Louisville

Contrast of air pollution in Louisville in the 1940s and 2000sIn the 1940s, Louisvillians were still heating their homes with coal. At the same time, industry was expanding, in large part due to World War II. Louisville’s Rubbertown is a good example, as it sprang up during the war to supply synthetic rubber to the military. After the war, prosperity increased. But so did air pollution.

Everyone could see that coal smoke was a problem, but the government had no legal authority to address it until 1945 when the Louisville Board of Aldermen passed a smoke ordinance. The ordinance also created the Louisville Smoke Commission and tasked it with figuring out ways to address the problem of air pollution. But the Commission had no control over private residences and no jurisdiction outside the city limits.

In 1952, the Kentucky legislature passed KRS Chapter 77 authorizing the formation of county air pollution control districts. The same year, 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. During this time, the APCD measured air pollution by collecting soot in buckets hung from lampposts around the county.

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:

  • Emission limits for solid particles
  • Limited sulfur content for coal burned
  • Controls for hydrocarbon vapors
  • Odor nuisance and open burning regulations
  • Considering of air pollution in planning and zoning decisions
  • An education and outreach program

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, which included emissions in Louisville. The state reaffirmed authority to control air pollution in Jefferson County to the Air Pollution Control Board in 1968.

The year 1970 was full of air pollution control milestones. Congress passed the Clean Air Act that year, and in Louisville the APCD began requiring permits for construction and operation of sources of air contaminants. Also of note, the APCD completed its first emissions inventory for Jefferson County.

Major air pollutants are trending downward

Over the years, the APCD began to implement reduction strategies for sources beyond large industrial polluters. In 1970, leaf burning was banned and in 1971 the APCD began ticketing drivers for smoking vehicles.

Then, 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 Louisville.

The Clean Air Act was amended again in 1990, bringing significant changes to the world of air pollution control. 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 VET program ended. In the same year, 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.

As the heavy veil of smog was clearing over Louisville, there were growing concerns about toxic emissions in West Louisville from the Rubbertown chemical plants, which had been taken over by private companies after World War II. This was confirmed in 2000-2001, when an air monitoring study found unsafe levels of 18 toxic chemicals present in and around the neighborhoods surrounding Rubbertown. In 2005, the APCD developed and implemented the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction Program (STAR), a stringent air toxics program designed to regulate the reduction of toxic emissions by large industries. In the years since STAR was first implemented, levels of toxic air pollution have dropped considerably throughout the community.