August 14, 2007

An air of indifference

Casey Clements: stands in the courtyard of his company’s small office complex in Butchertown. Clements is one of many neighbors unhappy with a proposed increase in Swift’s toxic emissions.Neighbors are gaining strength in numbers in the latest battle with Swift and The Big Pig Stench. Will the outcry be loud enough to finally get the politicians involved?Although Casey Clements didn’t say it quite this way, there is a new tension in Butchertown lately between the then and the now. The then: A large pork processing plant shares a ZIP code with a historic neighborhood currently in the middle of an urban renaissance, perhaps more accurately called gentrification. The now: That plant is asking a city agency to allow it to emit more pollutants, generated by a new heating unit.It is no surprise that this news upsets people like Clements, the 44-year-old managing director of a Butchertown-based healthcare information company and owner of several neighborhood properties, particularly when they realize that it will likely happen. It always does, one way or another.This is the latest scuffle between Swift & Co. — a Butchertown tenant since 1880 (the current Story Avenue facility came online in 1968) — and residents, landowners, businesspeople, developers and medical professionals here, a neighborhood whose unique architecture and proximity to downtown’s natural amenities have helped usher a revitalization in the past several years.The potential emissions increase will not be settled for at least another month: The Air Pollution Control District — the city agency currently amending Swift’s draft permit for more emissions — held a public hearing Friday, attended by some 50 people, 20-something of whom spoke, all against the proposal. The agency will now assess the comments and prepare a response, while also debating any new information internally, spokesman Matt Stull said.Swift initially asked to almost double its permitted emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxides (SOx), from 50 tons a year to 95. The APCD has since decided to change that to more accurately reflect what Swift’s new heating unit will actually emit, which is less. “They’re well within the margin of safety for public health,” Stull said of the increases. “Certainly we wouldn’t propose to approve any permit that didn’t adequately address public health in the community.”The concept of acceptable public risk is obtuse to many people, especially those sucking down Swift’s particulate matter and tugging on plastic inhalers in the same day. “I live on East Washington, I grew up there and had asthma, and I had to buy an air cleaner to exist,” Leah McKinley said at Friday’s hearing. “I can stand the smell occasionally, but I know how dangerous those elements are. I don’t enjoy my yard anymore. They need to clean the business up and do something about this terrible pollution.”Brooke Vaughn and her husband moved here this year from Nashville.“We’re very environmentally conscious and our friends are thinking about moving here, and I love everything about the neighborhood, it’s charming, it’s great, but all of this is just terrifying,” Vaughn, 26, said at the hearing. “We’d like to have children here and I think my friends do too, but this is just really scary to hear.” To allow a factory in a residential area to up its pollution when the city leadership is pushing to go “green” seems inconsistent to many here. Andy Cornelius recently moved to Butchertown from Kalamazoo, Mich. A member of the Butchertown Neighborhood Association’s board of directors, Cornelius heads the committee addressing Swift and air quality issues. “Louisville has many wonderful ‘green’ projects going on in the city, and by the APCD taking a stand against added pollution, we as a city can move forward towards a healthier community,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “It wouldn’t look too good if they built a green arena right down the street from where they allowed a company to double their known toxic pollutants — is that progress?” But city leadership, as it were, has mostly stood on the sidelines of this debate. Chad Carlton, spokesman for Mayor Abramson, said Monday that the administration is monitoring the situation between Swift and the neighbors, and if a critical mass of voices builds against Swift, perhaps some action would be appropriate (the vast majority of a large and active neighborhood association seems like a good start). However, he said there’s little room for the mayor to apply political pressure to Swift now — to update the plant’s odor control technology, for example, or to look for a new location — because the company basically follows the rules. The fines imposed by the APCD for violating its odor control agreement likely amount to an annual line item in the corporation’s budget — although the number of violations has increased steadily in the past few years, the dollar figure is low. A few grand a year in fines is the cost of doing business as a meat processor in the middle of a city.APCD’s Stull said in an interview Monday that, even if the emissions increases are approved, Swift won’t be among the city’s 40 or so top-tier polluters, the kinds of shit-breathers you see in Rubbertown, the West Louisville industrial neighborhood that accounts for almost half the city’s air pollution, according to the West Jefferson County Community Task Force. Ryan Real contributed to this story. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com