In Louisville’s Aging Sewer System, Collapses Are Frequent Tuesday, Oct 17 2017 

In August, a sewer collapse in downtown Louisville stopped traffic on parts of Main Street and drew weeks of media coverage. The collapse ended up costing the Metropolitan Sewer District about $3 million in repairs. But it was only one of nearly 400 cave-ins in the county so far this year; in the past, there have been as many as 843 similar incidents annually.

Jefferson County has two distinct systems: a combined sewer system in the older parts of the city (largely inside the Watterson Expressway) and a sanitary sewer system. The combined sewer system uses one pipe for both wastewater and storm water; the sanitary sewer system uses one pipe for wastewater and a separate one for storm water.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Last year, there was one cave-in for every four miles of infrastructure within MSD’s combined sewer system. There was one cave-in for every eight miles of infrastructure in the larger sanitary sewer system.

MSD Regulatory and Compliance Manager Dan French said the data doesn’t surprise him.

“We treat everything we can, but those pipes in those older developments inside the city are so large that we know during a rain event we’re not going to be able to treat everything,” French said. “A lot of these systems, the infrastructure is old, it wasn’t put in properly in the first place, so it causes a lot of problems.”

For every year since at least 2008, there have been several hundred more cave-ins in the sanitary sewer than in the combined system. French said one reason is the sheer number of miles of infrastructure in the sanitary system. But another reason is in these areas — largely suburban and rural — there’s less concrete to keep cave-ins from showing.

He said in other areas, the infrastructure is just poor and aging. Some of that infrastructure in the combined sewer system was built using brick in the late 1800s and is still in use. Rain plays a role, too.

But collapses have decreased since peaking in 2011. MSD responded to 600 cave-ins last year, and French said the number of cave-in calls this year also seems lower than usual. He attributed that low number to Louisville’s dryer weather season.

MSD

Even so, MSD still has outstanding infrastructure problems to address. Officials published a 20 year, $4.3 billion Critical Repair and Reinvestment Plan earlier this year, and have requested two significant rate hikes to fund the plan.

In both 2016 and 2017, MSD sought Metro Council approval for 20 percent rate hikes, which officials estimated would have increased the average ratepayer’s bill by about $11. But neither cleared the Metro Council, and MSD settled for smaller increases.

“A lot of people don’t think about the sewers and the pipes that are underground that are running under their feet and how they actually work,” French said.

Of that larger $4.3 billion plan, MSD officials estimate they’ll need $496 million to upgrade existing sewers and facilities to cut down on the number of yearly system cave-ins. They plan to discuss sewer rate hikes with the Metro Council again next year.

The Life And Death Saga Of The Kentucky Cave Shrimp Wednesday, Oct 11 2017 

Mammoth Cave specialist Rick Toomey bounces a beam from his high-powered flashlight over a clear underground pool. We found it after tracking about three miles underground from the cave entrance.

“This is where the scientist in the 1880s first found the shrimp and described it to the world,” he says.

Ecologist Kurt Helf responds by shouting across the cave pool: “We’re standing in history!”

Kentucky Cave Shrimp, which are only found in the Mammoth Cave area, are a curiosity; according to Helf and Toomey, most people are surprised to find out such a species exists. When you think of cave creatures, things like bats and salamanders may come to mind — translucent one-inch shrimp, not so much.

“And they are difficult to find,” Toomey says. “They are somewhat transparent, and you are trying to find them in a large, dark stream.”

They’re also the subject of research that could help us better understand how healthy the water we drink really is.

Ashlie Stevens | wfpl.org

Helf looking inside the Cave Shrimp habitat.

The species has a fascinating conservation history that extends into present day.

In the 1970s, the shrimp was declared extinct. There had been no sightings for years, and there is one dominant theory to explain why.

“Through the ’50s, the ’60s, early ’70s in the United States, water quality was very bad in many, many rivers,” Toomey says.

This included the rivers that ultimately feed the underground waterways of Mammoth Cave.

The Clean Water Act, which addressed growing concern about water pollution, was amended in 1972. Seven years later in 1979, a cave scientist found something interesting: one freshly dead Kentucky cave shrimp.

Soon after, another scientist found three live shrimp.

The species has recovered into the thousands. But they are still considered an endangered species.

Helf says there’s still so much we don’t know about the Kentucky Cave Shrimp; scientists need more information before they can help them.

“While there has been a lot written about them, I’m not certain some of these things are known to our satisfaction,” Helf says. “For instance, what is their preferred habitat? We’ve seen them in large cave rivers, slower-flowing streams, but the place they’ve been most abundant is these pools.”

To find out the answer to this question, Helf says the parks system has developed new monitoring protocols to tally the cave shrimp population. Often, that involves a researcher doing exactly what we are doing today — going deep into the cave streams with bright lights and taking a look at the habitat.

“We’re not only monitoring the organisms themselves, the cave shrimp, we’re also monitoring the water quality,” Helf says. “We’re deploying small sensors in the water to look at flooding in their habitat. We’re also monitoring water temperature.”

Once there’s more data on their numbers and patterns, scientists will have a better idea of how to make sure the species survives.

But why spend so much on such a small species that most people will never know exists? Toomey and Helf say there are two answers.

“One of the practical reasons we care about the cave shrimp is that the cave shrimp is responding to the water quality, and that’s the water we’re drinking,” Toomey says. “If we protect the water we are drinking and don’t actively go in and hurt the shrimp, they’re going to be just fine.”

And one that’s a little more emotional.

“If these animals disappear, the caves lose something of their mystery,” Helf says. “It fires the imagination to know these animals are there, that they exist in this dark habitat — but how cool is that?”

Bipartisan Bill Would Prop Up Coal Miners’ Pensions Thursday, Oct 5 2017 

A bipartisan Congressional group from the Ohio Valley and beyond introduced a new bill to save pensions for retired union coal miners throughout the region.

The American Miners Pension Act, or AMP, would secure pensions for about 43,000 miners in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia whose retirement benefits have been undermined by the decline of the coal industry.

West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said Congress acted to protect miners’ health benefits last year but pensions got kicked down the road.

“And every day that it goes without settling our pension problems it’s another day this will cost more,” Manchin said.  

Without Congressional action, the United Mine Workers pension plan could become insolvent in about five years. The UMW blames the pension fund’s decline on a downturn in coal markets and coal company bankruptcies. The AMP Act would transfer excess funds from the federal Abandoned Mine Land program to the UMW pension plan. Manchin said bankruptcy laws are also at the root of the problem.

“This will repeat itself time and time again. We’re not going to change it unless we change our bankruptcy laws,” Manchin said.

mining-without-benefits-v5Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Manchin said the bill seeks a loan, not a bailout. The AMP Act would require the pension fund to certify each year that it is solvent and able to pay back the principal and interest. UMW representatives warn that if their pension plan collapses, the beneficiaries and their dependents will be moved into the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which could also put that important source of pension protection at risk.

Robert Bailey was a coal miner for 36 years and retired from Patriot Coal, a company Peabody Coal created. Patriot carried many pension and health benefit costs from Peabody and has twice declared bankruptcy. Bailey said he worries he will lose his main source of income if the UMW’s pension plan becomes insolvent.

“It would definitely be devastating to the majority of coal miners that depend on this,” Bailey said.

Bailey said he has developed black lung and is unable to work. His wife left work to stay home and care for him as well. He said the federal government promised long ago to  guarantee lifelong benefits for miners — a pledge he said the AMP Act would keep.

“If they have any morals, to me, they would have to pass it,” Bailey said.

Coal retirees have been fighting to secure their benefits for nearly five years. The average monthly pension payment in the Ohio Valley is about $500 to $600.

WVPB’s Glynis Board, Roxy Todd, and Jessica Lilly contributed to this report.

Why Study Stoneflies? Climate Change Biologist Scott Hotaling Explains Saturday, Sep 23 2017 

Our climate is changing, and that means that some organisms will likely change with it. That’s the research focus of climate change biologist Scott Hotaling, who will present at the Idea Festival in Louisville this week.

Hotaling is a postdoctoral researcher at Washington State University who studies organisms like polar fishes and stoneflies who live in glacier meltwater. As climate change affects these habitats, Hotaling’s research focuses on whether the genomes of these species evolve to adapt to warmer water.

Listen to our conversation in the player above.

On searching for a single gene that may be evolving in a species due to climate change:

“What we’re trying to figure out is, if you take the entire genome which is the template for everything these stoneflies, the template for everything we do, our genome, our behavior, our hair color, our eye color,  everything about us, and you look across it, huge swaths of that genome, most of it, we’ll say 99 percent, is not going to have anything to do with surviving warmer conditions. But some of it might. Finding the thing that is associated with thermal tolerance in a stonefly that’s never been studied that lives in the meltwater of a glacier is a pretty big challenge.”

Hotaling says as a postdoc, he’s insulated from a lot of the public funding controversy about climate change research. But he says he actively seeks out opportunities to discuss his research and climate change in general:

“It’s something that I, as a climate change biologist, I wake up every day and embrace. I openly discuss my work in coffee shops and bars and wherever I go. I invite people to talk about it with me. And I don’t want them to feel like they’re wrong or feel like it’s something they can’t understand or I’m smarter than them or something because I have a graduate degree. It’s a conversation we all need to have.”

On the universal implications of climate change research:

“It affects us all. It affects you if you live in Miami, it affects if you live in Kansas, it affects you if you live in Alaska. It affects you if you buy insurance with the way climate change affects things like hurricanes. It’s not something that just matters to stoneflies living in the meltwater of glaciers. Like, certainly that’s an interesting evolutionary question, and it’s important to figure that out just from a scientific standpoint and a conservation standpoint. But understanding how climate change is linked to warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico, which contributes to more intense hurricanes, is an equally viable and human relevant, very human relevant, topic of discussion.”

New Campaign Brings Anti-Idling Message To Louisville Parks Thursday, Sep 21 2017 

A new partnership between Kentuckiana Air Education (KAIRE) and Louisville Metro Parks will remind drivers to area parks to turn their cars off rather than idling.

The new pavement decals carry a simple message: “People Idle In Parks – Not Cars.”

For years, KAIRE has worked to cut down on vehicle idling as a way of improving Louisville’s air quality. Even though vehicles are cleaner than they used to be, sitting in one place for longer than 10 seconds with an idling engine can create a localized air pollution problem.

KAIRE spokesman Tom Nord said there are already signs up all over town reminding people not to idle. Expanding the campaign to parks, he said, is a natural fit.

“We focus our idle free program on hotspots — around schools, drive through lanes, parking lots, places where people tend to sit in their cars and idle without thinking,” Nord said. “It occurred to us that the parks are probably a big part of that. We have great parks all over the city, but a lot of people drive to them.”

The new pavement decals are now in 16 parks, with 14 more to follow.

MSD Director: Requests For Rate Hikes Aren’t Going Away Tuesday, Sep 19 2017 

The head of Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District says his agency will continue to make the case for a substantial rate increase to invest in the city’s aging sewer and flood protection infrastructure.

For two consecutive years, Metro Council has declined to take up proposals to allow the MSD board to substantially hike user rates. The board only has the power to raise rates 6.9 percent annually; both years, MSD officials have requested 20 percent rate increases.

MSD Executive Director Tony Parrott said the district’s 20-year critical infrastructure plan — which will require up to $4.3 billion in additional funding — lays out issues that are vital to the community’s health and safety.

Kyeland Jackson | wfpl.org

A 102-inch sewer pipe, installed in 1948, collapsed Aug. 30, causing sections of roadway at the intersection of Main and Hancock streets to cave in.

For the past two years, Parrott has been telling lawmakers that Louisville’s infrastructure is crumbling. Last month, as if to prove his point, a 102-inch sewer pipe collapsed at the intersection of Main and Hancock streets. The pipe was installed in 1948. There are other, older sections of the sewer system, too.

“When you have systems that are stressed and systems that are aged, the first thing that happens is they start to leak and they start to collapse,” Parrott said. “And then the roadway which they sit under gets washed away and that cave-in occurs. We have to be out in front of those type of issues.”

But MSD is also under a federal consent decree to reduce the frequency that wastewater — including untreated sewage — is legally released into public waterways like Beargrass Creek and the Ohio River. That $850 million project is required to be finished by 2024; until it’s done, Parrott said without a hefty rate hike, MSD will not have additional money to spend on improving infrastructure.

Other cities in the region — including Cincinnati, Cleveland and St. Louis — have consent decrees and aging infrastructure, too. But those cities wrapped critical infrastructure repair into the consent decree. Louisville did not.

Parrott said he is continuing the conversation with Metro Council members about what kind of rate increase might be able to get sufficient lawmaker support. When the plans have come before the body in the past, members have raised concerns about rate increases’ effects on low-income residents.

“The last proposal on the table was to kind of phase it in over four years,” Parrott said. “I think there’s still an appetite to do that.”

That proposal would have given the MSD board temporary authority to raise rates up to 10 percent for four years.

“So, we’re working with Mayor (Greg) Fischer and the sponsors, to figure out how do we continue that dialogue, and how do we get folks to a point to where they understand that it is better that we deal with these risks now as opposed to kicking the can down the road,” Parrott said.

Small Earthquake Reported In Illinois, Felt In 3 States Tuesday, Sep 19 2017 

ALBION, Ill. (AP) — The U.S. Geological Survey reports that a small earthquake in southeastern Illinois was felt across parts of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

The USGS says the preliminary 3.8-magnitude earthquake occurred at 6:47 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday about 7 ½ miles (12 kilometers) northeast of the city of Albion. The agency says the quake caused light to moderate shaking and very light damage. The quake’s preliminary depth was a little more than 7 miles (11.5 kilometers).

The Edwards County Sheriff’s office in Albion says there have been no reports of damage or injuries.

The USGS says shaking was felt in Terre Haute and near Bloomington in Indiana, Owensboro and Paducah in Kentucky, and Effingham and Carbondale in Illinois.

Albion is about 140 miles (225 kilometers) west of Louisville, Kentucky.

Neighbors, Councilmembers ‘Outraged’ Over Approved Toxic Air Modification Friday, Sep 15 2017 

Louisville regulators say they’ll grant part of a request from a Rubbertown company to modify its toxic air permit for a carcinogen called 1,3 butadiene, while denying another part of the request. The decision was announced today.

While lawmakers and a community activist were pleased the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District hadn’t granted the entire request for modification, they were outraged American Synthetic Rubber will not have to meet the original goals laid out in the city’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction (STAR) program for 1,3 butadiene that’s released as fugitive emissions.

“Do black lives and poor lives in West Louisville not matter?” asked Third District Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, who represents some residential areas near the chemical plants in Rubbertown. “I think they do, and I am totally disappointed.”

What Was The Proposal?

Like every other company that emits toxic air pollution, American Synthetic Rubber has to comply with the regulations laid out in Louisville’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program, which was enacted in 2005. STAR uses extensive modeling, and requires these companies to prove they’re still meeting health goals. If they aren’t, they have to prove they’re using what the Air Pollution Control District calls the “Best Available Technology” to get their emissions as low as possible.

American Synthetic Rubber is meeting the goals laid out in its STAR permit for overall plant emissions, but sought a permit modification for its 1,3 butadiene emissions. The chemical, which is a known human carcinogen, is used in the production of synthetic rubber. And ASRC said it was using the best available technology and had reduced the plant’s emissions, but was still falling short of the STAR goals.

“We have reduced emissions from the plant by more than 90 percent since 2003 and on butadiene emissions, those have been reduced by 47 percent, or nearly half, in the last three years,” said spokesman Eric Bruner.

Today, Air Pollution Control District Executive Director Keith Talley announced the company will be allowed to more than triple the cancer risk for 1,3 butadiene coming from fugitive emissions, like what slips out through leaks. This is an increase from 1 cancer case in a million (assuming 70 years of exposure) to 3.04 cases in a million for the non-industrial property outside of ASRC’s fence line.

Talley said this essentially means emissions will stay steady at the plant, because the company isn’t currently meeting the 1-in-a-million goal. He said regulators believe ASRC has done what it can to reduce those emissions, and they’ll continue to work with them to meet the original STAR goal.

“They still have work to do on that one,” he said. “Our expectation is for them to ultimately meet that goal, and that will be what the district works toward.”

Bruner said ASRC has spent about $15 million on equipment to reduce the plant’s emissions. They’ve installed a thermal oxidizer, which got rid of most of the emissions from the facility’s flare. They also have a robust leak detection program, and have tightened their definition of what a “leak” is, and therefore what has to be fixed.

But the APCD denied the second part of ASRC’s request, which would have nearly doubled the cancer risk for 1,3 butadiene coming from ASRC’s flare.

Talley said the APCD denied that request because they didn’t feel it was necessary.

“They don’t need it,” he said. “They already meet the [goal of one in a million] and have met it for the last 10 years or so.”

Bruner said ASRC will be able to keep operating the plant at the same level without interruption, despite the denial.

“We were trying to give the plant some industrial flexibility,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that the plant would operate without exceeding the conditions in the future and that was really the focus of it.”

‘West Louisville…has been forgotten’

But it’s not just about the cancer risk, and it’s not just about butadiene or American Synthetic Rubber, said Eboni Cochran of Rubbertown Emergency ACTion.

“These chemicals also have non-cancerous effects,” she said. “So we’re talking about cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease. We’re talking about reproductive issues, so it’s not just ‘one in a million.’ We’re talking about lots of different things this one chemical could do to damage one’s body.” 

ASRC is only one of the sources of 1,3 butadiene in Louisville; the APCD estimates about 72 percent of the chemical in the air comes from sources like cars and trucks. But the company’s toxic air permit modification request attracted a lot of attention, both in West Louisville neighborhoods near Rubbertown and around the city.

The APCD held three public hearings on the modification, where the proposal drew criticism from residents. Last month, the Louisville Metro Council unanimously opposed granting the request in a non-binding resolution.

First District Councilwoman Jessica Green said city leaders have worked hard on air issues like hookah and indoor cigarette smoking, while she feels like pollution from Rubbertown is ignored.

“While issues about hookah have been lobbied about and there’ve been discussions about clean air as it relates to that, we in West Louisville and Southwest Louisville have once more been forgotten and there has been no leadership,” she said.

Councilwoman Mary Woolridge echoed that, warning Mayor Greg Fischer that her constituents would remember his perceived inaction during his next election campaign.

“This is something that is very personal to me because the people I represent deserve to have the same healthy place to live in Metro Louisville as anyone else,” she said.

In an emailed statement, Fischer backed up the Air Pollution Control District’s decision.

“This decision is the most stringent ruling that APCD can issue today under the current law,” he wrote. “However, this determination does not end the requirements for ASRC to continue the pursuit to reduce emissions even more, especially as technology improves and allows for even further reductions.”

STAR allows any final determination — like this one — to be appealed.

EPA To Reconsider Federal Coal Ash Rules Thursday, Sep 14 2017 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency says it will reconsider the nation’s first-ever coal ash regulations. Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal in power plants. It contains toxins, which if not managed properly, can contaminate water, soil and air.

Last spring, the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) — an industry group — filed a petition requesting the EPA reconsider the rule. The coal ash regulations went into effect in October 2015 under President Barack Obama’s administration. Now, President Donald Trump’s EPA says there may be a good case for revising the rule.

“After reviewing your petitions, I have decided that it is appropriate and in the public interest to reconsider the provisions of the final rule addressed in your petitions, in light of the issues raised in your petitions, as well as the new authorities provided in the recently enacted Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act,” wrote EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in a letter dated Wednesday.

He added the letter is not weighing in on the merits of USWAG’s issues, but noted if the EPA decides to revise the final rule it would involve notice and public comment.

Coal ash is a significant issue in Kentucky, though the state hasn’t seen the kind of large-scale ash spills that have happened in Tennessee and North Carolina. The waste is stored in ponds and dry landfills across the state; earlier this year, regulators cited a utility for allowing coal ash to contaminate a popular recreation lake and poisoning the fish.

In a news release, a coalition of environmental groups lampooned Pruitt’s letter. They noted the presence of toxins like arsenic, lead, mercury and chromium in coal ash, which raise the risk for cancer, heart disease and stroke.

“This decision is a galling giveaway to industrial polluters, even by this Administration’s standards of pandering to industry at the expense of the public,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “The EPA is sending a crystal-clear message to families across the country: our job is to protect wealthy polluters, not you and your children. These toxic dumps should have been cleaned up decades ago.”

Kentucky has passed its own controversial regulations in response to the federal rule.

For more of WFPL’s coal ash coverage, click here.

MSD Says Downtown Sewer Collapse Will Take Weeks To Repair Thursday, Sep 14 2017 

Officials with Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District say it will take weeks to fully repair a collapsed downtown sewer.

MSD gave an update on repair work during a news conference Thursday, saying a series of temporary above-ground pipes would be built to divert water and allow crews to work on the sewer.

The temporary pipes, said Executive Director Tony Parrott, should be built by Friday, Sept. 15.

“Over time,” said Parrott, “we’ll be able to get one lane open. But for now, Main Street is closed.”

Kyeland Jackson | wfpl.org

A 102-inch sewer pipe, installed in 1948, collapsed Aug. 30, causing sections of roadway at the intersection of Main and Hancock streets to cave in.

The 102-inch sewer pipe, installed in 1948, collapsed Aug. 30 causing sections of roadway at the intersection of Main and Hancock streets to cave in. The sewer collapse closed Main Street between Clay and Jackson streets, as well as Hancock Street from Billy Goat Strut Alley to East Washington Street.

Full repairs could cost up to $3 million, Parrott said.

According to its website, MSD manages more than 3,000 miles of pipe and needs $496 million to upgrade existing sewers and facilities. Parrott said there’s now an average of nine cave-ins a month, and said more work is needed on infrastructure.

“We’ve got critical assets that serve a large portion of Jefferson County that are aging and are in need of repair and are creating risk to the system,” Parrott said. “We don’t believe that we should be running these assets to failure.”

Kyeland Jackson | wfpl.org

A 102-inch sewer pipe, installed in 1948, collapsed Aug. 30, causing sections of roadway at the intersection of Main and Hancock streets to cave in.

MSD also said many sections of Louisville’s sewer system are ill-equipped to handle heavy rains and the growing population’s wastewater. Some sections under Broadway were built in 1867 and unravel when bricks give way.

In July, Louisville Metro Council opted not to vote on a pair of ordinances that would have granted sewer district officials the authority to raise rates beyond the 6.9 threshold currently in place and, furthermore, institute a 20 percent hike for sewer district residents this year.

Such a hike would have increased customer’s monthly bills by about $11, according to sewer district officials.

Kyeland Jackson | wfpl.org

A 102-inch sewer pipe, installed in 1948, collapsed Aug. 30, causing sections of roadway at the intersection of Main and Hancock streets to cave in.

During a special meeting the day after Metro Council’s decision, the MSD board settled for a 6.9 percent hike. At that meeting, MSD Chief Engineer Angela Akridge said insufficient funding for the systems could bring disaster.

“Every time it rains, who’s it going to be? Whose house is going to flood that can’t afford it? Which baby is going to be in a boat?” Akridge asked. “Operations will continue to work around the clock. But we will live in fear. We will live in fear of the next catastrophe and we will do our best to protect and serve.”

Parrott said one lane on Main Street may be reopened once 3,500 feet in temporary pipes are built to divert water from the collapsed pipe.

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