Utilities Predict Major Decline In Ky. Coal Plants Regardless Of Climate Policy Monday, Dec 4 2017 

Kentucky’s largest electric utility expects to be powered more than 80 percent by natural gas or renewable energy by the middle of this century — regardless of whether the country’s energy policies change.

Last month, PPL — the corporation that owns both Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities — released a climate assessment called for by shareholders. It looks at the Kentucky fleet under three possible scenarios:

  • under current policies;
  • if the Clean Power Plan or some similar carbon regulations are enacted; and
  • if future policies seek to limit carbon dioxide to keep the planet’s temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Assuming a 55-year lifespan for coal-fired power plants, the analysis found approximately 10 percent of LG&E and KU’s fleet would be existing coal plants by 2050. That’s compared with nearly 80 percent today.

If the coal plants are run for 65 years, they account for a slightly larger amount of the fleet’s generation by 2050 — about 18 percent.

“Just by virtue of [economics], you’re going to have substantial reductions and when you look out to 2050, substantial retirements of our coal-fired units will have happened by then,” said PPL spokesperson Ryan Hill.

This report comes as the Trump Administration is weighing the future of the Obama Administration’s carbon dioxide regulations, — regulations which Trump’s team has argued will hurt the U.S. coal industry and power generation.

But at least in terms of LG&E and KU, the regulations will have virtually no effect on how much coal the utilities burn, at least in the long term.

By 2050, the bulk of the LG&E and KU fleet will be new natural gas facilities and renewable energy. There’s not even a category for “new coal” plants on this climate assessment — that’s because Hill said there’s no scenario where new coal plants will make economic sense.

“We have no current plans to build any new coal-fired power plants,” he said. “You’ve seen natural gas prices come down over the past five, six, seven years and that’s really spurred a transition in the generation mix across the country. And certainly we’ve seen that transition begin a bit at our LG&E and Kentucky Utilities companies as well.”

LG&E retired the coal-fired Cane Run plant in Louisville in 2015, and KU recently announced plans to retire two of the three coal units at the E.W. Brown plant near Danville. All of the company’s decisions are bound by the Kentucky Public Service Commission’s requirement that any electricity generation is the “least-cost reasonable” option.

So, what does this mean for Kentucky, where the coal industry has imploded over the past decade?

For one, it means significant future reductions of carbon dioxide, coal ash and other toxic byproducts of burning coal for electricity.

And it also means the commonwealth will lose major consumers of Kentucky coal. About 35 million tons of coal went from Eastern and Western Kentucky coal mines to power plants in the U.S last year, according to the annual Kentucky Coal Facts. More than half of that coal was consumed by Kentucky coal plants — and half of that went to power plants operated by either LG&E or KU.

Looking at it in a different way, Kentucky mines produced about 43 million tons of coal last year. LG&E and KU power plants bought and burned about 21 percent of that coal.

Louisville’s Sewer District Makes Another Push To Raise Rates Monday, Dec 4 2017 

The Metropolitan Sewer District is pushing again for a rate increase it says will help cover essential repairs to infrastructure projects around the city.

Metro Council’s budget committee could consider a proposal as soon as Thursday that would allow MSD to raise rates 10 percent annually over the next four years. It is an amendment to the existing ordinance, which caps annual rate increases at 6.9 percent without Council approval.

For the past two years, MSD officials have said they need $4.3 billion for a 20-year Critical Repair and Reinvestment Plan, which will address issues such as neighborhood flooding and preventing sewer collapses. One of these high-profile collapses happened in August: a sewer line installed at the intersection of Main and Hancock Streets in 1948 collapsed and shut the road for weeks.

Besides these capital needs, MSD’s budget is further stressed by a federal consent decree to reduce sewage overflows into the Ohio River. The agency says it has put about $400 million into the project over the past 10 years, and needs another $500 million to complete work by the end of 2024.

If approved, a 9.9 percent annual rate increase over the next four fiscal years would bring in an additional $71.4 million dollars, compared to the standard 6.9 percent increase, according to MSD figures. The hike would go into effect on Aug. 1, 2018.

MSD Executive Director Tony Parrott said in a statement the rate increase is necessary for fixing aspects of Louisville’s infrastructure.

“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 told WFPL in September. “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.”

Mayor Greg Fischer came out in support of the proposal last week, calling for bipartisan support of the measure. The rate hike proposal has appeared in various forms since 2016 — including a one-time 20 percent increase — but failed to gain traction with Metro Council.

“Protecting homes and businesses from flooding is essential for our citizens’ well-being, safety, and future economic growth,” Fischer said in a statement. “MSD leadership and its board have worked the past year to educate the public on the need for a significant investment in our flood protection system including upgrades to viaducts, aging sewer system and our water quality treatment centers.”

The proposed increase would add $5 a month to the average ratepayer’s bill, Fischer’s statement said. The amendment, which was filed Monday, is sponsored by District 4 Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, District 6 Councilman David James and District 20 Councilman Stuart Benson.

Expert Says Herrington Lake Pollution Is Worse Than We Thought Friday, Nov 17 2017 

As a pending federal lawsuit over coal ash pollution in a Central Kentucky lake plods along, new details have emerged about the extent of contamination in the water.

In an affidavit filed last month in federal court, biologist Dennis Lemly laid out the results of fish sampling in Herrington Lake, a major fishing and boating site near Danville. Previous sampling by state regulators found high levels of the chemical selenium in fish tissue, but Lemly found evidence of additional damage to the lake’s fish and suggests the issue is far worse than the state’s assessment.

Courtesy Dennis Lemly

Young-of-the-year largemouth bass collected in June 2016 from Herrington Lake. The top fish exhibits scoliosis, which is a common deformity caused by selenium poisoning. The bottom fish is normal.

Selenium is a naturally-occurring element that can be toxic to wildlife in large amounts. Once it gets into a body of water it’s very difficult to eradicate. While it exists in nature, it’s also found in coal ash — the byproduct of burning coal for electricity.

And there are more than six years’ worth of documents showing contaminated water including arsenic and selenium leached from the ash pond at the E.W. Brown Power Station into groundwater and directly into Herrington Lake.

About 12 percent of the 548 fish Lemly tested showed serious physical deformities — everything from craniofacial deformities to skeletal problems.

“If you look at the background deformity rate, you might find 1 out of 200 fish that has a minor fin deformity,” he said. “In comparison, in Herrington Lake, over 1 out of 10 had deformities that were manifested in these major skeletal deformities.”

Meanwhile, the state’s sampling found nine out of 10 fish tissue samples taken in 2016 from the same lake exceeded Kentucky’s fish tissue selenium criteria.

And a spokeswoman for Kentucky Utilities, which operates the Brown plant, said the utility is not certain the large amounts of selenium that regulators have found in Herrington Lake are related to the Brown plant’s coal ash.

A Corrective Action Plan

Environmental non-profits Kentucky Waterways Alliance and Sierra Club, working with Earthjustice, filed the federal lawsuit in July after a WFPL story detailed extensive pollution from the coal ash landfill at the Brown Power Station. The Brown plant — operated by Kentucky Utilities — sits right on the edge of the lake. For at least six years, contaminated water left the site and ran off into the lake. Despite remedial measures, the problem continued, according to state records.

In January, the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection formally cited Kentucky Utilities, fining the company $25,000 in civil penalties and requiring it to complete a corrective action plan.

That corrective action plan has yet to be finalized. The state received more than 400 comments – most from Sierra Club members — during the public comment period. All opposed the plan.

In the plan, Kentucky Utilities is proposing a study of all the potential sources of selenium that could have affected Herrington Lake, as well as a full fish analysis. This could take until 2018 or 2019 — a delay many found unacceptable.

“Kentucky Utilities’ plan to spend months trying to determine an alternative source of the pollution impacting Herrington Lake abdicates their responsibility for cleaning up the pollution they produced at their E.W. Brown plant. The Brown plant’s coal ash ponds lie adjacent to the lake and are almost certainly responsible for the selenium, lead, and arsenic found in the lake.

KU wants to study the issue until at least 2019, which is unacceptable. KU needs to take responsibility for the environmental cleanup at Herrington Lake, and that cleanup needs to begin as soon as possible,” read one typical comment.

Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection spokesman John Mura said the state has yet to approve the corrective action plan, and he’s not sure on the timeframe. In the meantime, Kentucky Utilities has been given the go-ahead to begin their own tests of the fish in Herrington Lake.

“We are waiting on the results of further testing that is being done out there before we proceed,” Mura said.

‘Herrington Lake is contaminated’

Kentucky Utilities has requested a judge dismiss the lawsuit filed by Earthjustice, saying the issue is adequately addressed by the corrective action plan pending state approval.

Earthjustice attorney Thom Cmar is opposing KU’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The lawsuit and the corrective action plan are operating on separate tracks, and he said if the plan was beefed up a bit, it might address some of his concerns.

“If we could resolve this outside of a lawsuit, that would be better,” Cmar said. “But the only way that I can see that happening would be if the company was willing to take responsibility for its contributions to the very serious contamination we’ve seen in the lake and offer to take much more meaningful steps both to stop further pollution and clean up the pollution that’s already out there.”

Chris Whelan, spokeswoman for KU, said the company has begun its own fish sampling. She said other reports, like those issued by the Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife, contradict biologist Dennis Lemly’s findings.

“What we’re seeing from all the other reports is there’s no issue with the fish,” she said. “[The Division of Fish and Wildlife’s] annual performance report from 2016 says the fish are fine, and their 2017 fishing forecast says the fish are rated fair to excellent.”

Lemly said that makes sense — his study focused on small, young fish, while Fish and Wildlife looks at larger and older fish that anglers would target. He said the prevalence of skeletal deformities among the fish he sampled suggests the pollution has been an issue for a while — long enough to cause what are essentially birth defects.

“That gets back to the mechanism by which selenium poisons fish,” Lemly said. “It doesn’t poison the little fish after they hatch out of their eggs. It occurs because the adult fish consume high selenium in their diet. In other words, the selenium gets into the food chain.”

In the meantime, Lemly said selenium is nearly impossible to remove from a water body as large as Herrington Lake.

“Herrington Lake is contaminated,” he said. “And no matter if E.W. Brown stopped their discharge today, the selenium that is in that lake is going to continue to cause problems and accumulate in those fish and potentially poison them for a long, long time.”

The case in U.S. District court is currently awaiting a ruling from Judge Danny Reeves on Kentucky Utilities’ motion to dismiss.

This story has been updated.

University of Louisville To Study Health Effects Of Lees Lane Landfill Thursday, Nov 9 2017 

The University of Louisville is getting $6.7 million to study the health effects of environmental pollution. The money will allow U of L to set up a Superfund Research Center — one of fewer than two dozen around the country — where research will focus on the people living near the Lees Lane Landfill in Southwest Louisville.

The Lees Lane Landfill is a 112-acre site south of Rubbertown. For 35 years, it functioned as a municipal dump and a repository for toxic chemicals from nearby industries. It closed in 1975 and was added to the federal Superfund list as a National Priority Site in 1983.

Lees Lane was removed from the National Priority List in 1996, but air and groundwater monitoring has continued. The landfill is adjacent to a residential neighborhood, and people living there have seen signs the problem isn’t resolved.

In 2014, indoor air tests showed high levels of toxic chemicals in the crawl spaces of homes near the landfill, but scientists weren’t able to definitively link those gases to the site. Neighborhood residents’ concerns about the landfill and its effect on their health are ongoing.

Now, the grant from the National Institutes of Health will allow researchers from a number of different fields at U of L to study the issue and possible links between environment and health. Cardiovascular medicine professor and researcher Sanjay Srivastava will lead the effort.

He said the environmental research will focus on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

“These health effects, especially the effects of these compounds on the cardiometabolic health, which includes insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and liver disease,” Srivastava said. “So, we want to see how and which chemicals increase the risks for these diseases.”

Over the next five years, the new initiative will conduct air monitoring at Lees Lane, as well as in nearby Rubbertown and farther away in the Oakdale neighborhood, south of Churchill Downs. Researchers plan to enlist 500 study participants from all three neighborhoods, collect health information and test for VOC exposure in their blood and urine.

One potential issue is cumulative exposure. Some people have been living near Lees Lane for decades and have been exposed to much higher levels of harmful chemicals in the past. Of course, there’s no way to go back and time and measure that pollution.

“But what we believe, and we have some preliminary evidence, [is] that even after a long period of time, the background levels of these volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere are higher, which increases a potential health risk in these populations,” Srivastava said.

He added another component of the research will look at the effect of trees and vegetation in absorbing excess air pollution, in partnership with a new effort in Oakdale called the Green Heart Project.

“These trees or plants could be very good filters for quenching these VOCs,” Srivastava said. “So, if you have more vegetation or more trees, then you can decrease the levels of these deleterious VOCs. At the same time, the trees emit a lot of plant-derived VOCs, which are good for health.”

Srivastava said the study team will hold health fairs in the spring to begin enrolling study participants.

EPA Approval Of Bacteria To Fight Mosquitoes Caps A 20-Year Quest Wednesday, Nov 8 2017 

Editor’s note: The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia bacteria as a “biopesticide” in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The bacteria keep mosquitoes from spreading diseases like dengue and Zika. Back in 2012, NPR’s Joe Palca wrote about scientist Scott O’Neill’s 20 years of struggle to make the idea of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes work. Here is his story.

This summer, my big idea is to explore the big ideas of science. Instead of just reporting science as results — the stuff that’s published in scientific journals and covered as news — I want to take you inside the world of science. I hope I’ll make it easier to understand how science works, and just how cool the process of discovery and innovation really is.

A lot of science involves failure, but there are also the brilliant successes, successes that can lead to new inventions, new tools, new drugs — things that can change the world

That got me thinking that I wanted to dive deeper into the story of an Australian scientist named Scott O’Neill. Scott had come up a clever new way for combating dengue fever.

Dengue is a terrible disease. It sickens tens of millions and kills tens of thousands. There’s no cure, no vaccine and pretty much no way to prevent it. It’s one of those diseases transmitted by a mosquito, like malaria.

About 20 years ago, a lot of scientists got excited about the idea of genetically modifying mosquitoes so they couldn’t transmit these diseases. People are still pursuing this approach. But I thought genetically modifying mosquitoes would be really hard to do. Even if you were able to make these disease-blocking mosquitoes in the lab, I didn’t see how you would ever get them to survive in the wild, and displace the disease-transmitting mosquitoes that were already there. There was also a societal problem with the scheme. Most people probably wouldn’t be thrilled about having swarms of genetically modified mosquitoes released in their backyards.

But last summer, when I read about O’Neill’s work, it really knocked me out. His big idea was to infect mosquitoes with a naturally occurring bacteria called Wolbachia. Turns out that by some unknown quirk of biology, Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes can’t carry the dengue virus.

Let me repeat that, because this is a key point: A mosquito infected with the bacteria called Wolbachia can’t transmit the virus that causes dengue. One microbe defeats the other.

When I interviewed O’Neill by phone last year, he told me the idea seemed to be working. He had released his Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes into two small communities in northeastern Australia.

“Over a very short period of time, the Wolbachia was able to invade the wild mosquito population until close to 100 percent of all mosquitoes had the Wolbachia infection — and so we presume, greatly reduced ability to transmit dengue between people,” O’Neill told me.

That was enough success for me to do a short news story about O’Neill’s work. But I knew there was more. I convinced my editor to let me go to Australia to learn more about O’Neill and his big idea.

‘Incredibly Frustrating Work’

One of the first things I learned when I got to his lab at Monash University in Melbourne was a surprise: It had taken O’Neill 20 years to get his big idea to work.

“You know, I was incredibly persistent in not wanting to give this idea up,” O’Neill said. “I thought the idea was a good idea, and I don’t think you get too many ideas in your life, actually. At least I don’t. I’m not smart enough. So I thought this idea was a really good idea.”

The problem was that O’Neill couldn’t figure out how to infect mosquitoes with Wolbachia. Remember, a Wolbachia infected mosquito can’t transmit dengue.

You can’t just spread Wolbachia bacteria around and hope the mosquitoes catch it. Instead, you have to puncture a mosquito egg or embryo about the size of a poppy seed with a hair-thin needle containing the bacteria, peering through a microscope the entire time so you can see what you’re doing.

“It’s incredibly frustrating work,” O’Neill says.

His colleague Tom Walker spends hour after hour, day after day, trying to inject the embryos. Even though he’s become an expert at this, Walker can do no more than 500 a day.

Then the scientists have to wait a week until the adult mosquitoes emerge to see if any are infected with Wolbachia. Walker says in this latest round of work he’s injected 18,000 eggs — with nothing to show for it. “The success rate is very low,” says Walker, in something of an understatement.

“We don’t have any windows that can open in this building, so people like Tom can’t jump out of them,” O’Neill adds with a laugh. He sounds like he’s only half kidding.

The good news is that if you can manage to get the bacteria into even one mosquito, nature will take care of spreading it for you. Any mommy mosquito that’s infected will also infect all her darling offspring, all 100 or more of them. And when those baby mosquitoes become mature in about 10 days, the new mommies among them will pass Wolbachia to their babies. Pretty soon, everybody who’s anybody in that mosquito community is infected.

Success: ‘A Significant Impact On Dengue Disease In Communities’

Now as I said, O’Neill has been pushing this idea of using Wolbachia to control dengue for decades, for a most of that time without any success. I asked him what it takes to stick with something for that long.

“I think being obsessive,” he replied. “Being maybe a little ill in that regard. And it’s just that I seem to have focused my obsession onto Wolbachia instead of on to postage stamps or model trains.”

And even though his obsession has brought him to the point where he’s shown he can get his Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes to spread in the wild, that’s not the success he’s ultimately after. “Success for me is having a significant impact on dengue disease in communities,” he says.

To do that, he’ll have to release his mosquitoes in a place where there’s a lot of dengue, and then see if that brings down the number of cases of the disease in humans. Those studies are being planned now.

The stakes are high. By some estimates, more than a billion people around the world are at risk for getting dengue. Even if it doesn’t kill you, I’m told a case of dengue can make you feel so bad, you wish you were dead.

“[It’s] pretty much the worst disease I’ve ever had. It was not fun,” says Steven Williams, a tropical disease researcher at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Williams was bitten by a dengue mosquito while on a trip to French Polynesia. He says for 10 days he had a high fever, horrible headache and terrible pain in his muscles and joints.

One other delightful thing about dengue: There are no specific drugs to treat it. “You basically just have to ride it out,” says Williams.

Moments Of Triumph, With Trepidation

With no cure and no vaccine, O’Neill’s Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes could make a huge difference. Although proving that is still years off, there have been moments of triumph in the 20-year slog that’s brought him this far.

Take the day in 2006, when one of O’Neill’s graduate students told him he thought he’d finally succeeded in infecting a dengue mosquito with Wolbachia.

I figured this must have been a red-letter day for O’Neill, a day of sheer elation. He told me looking back on it, it was. But at the time it didn’t seem that way.

“Because … you’re so used to failure, and you don’t believe anything when you see it,” he says. “And so you can think back to when there was a eureka moment, but at the time, it’s probably … ‘This looks pretty good but, you know, I’ve been burnt thousands of times before. Let’s go and do it again, and let’s do it another time, and check and check and check, and make sure it’s actually real.’ “

O’Neill says the day his team really enjoyed was last year when they tested to see if their mosquitoes would take over from the other mosquitoes in the wild.

O’Neill’s colleague Scott Ritchie recorded the event for posterity on his cellphone.

That got me interested in O’Neill’s work last summer. He and his colleagues have now completed a second release, and the results are looking promising. But O’Neill says it’s not yet time to celebrate.

“We’ve got some good preliminary data, and we’re on the path. And it’s looking good. But you know I am a realist. It could fall over at any day,” he says.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

In Louisville, Rain, Flooding Are Clearest Signs Of Climate Change Thursday, Nov 2 2017 

Brenda Smith moved into her house in the Louisville neighborhood of Preston Park in 1973 with her husband and newborn son. A month later, her home flooded.

Smith and her family moved out, gutted the one-story home and rebuilt. She figured it was a freak event; a heavy rainstorm had filled a nearby ditch and sent the water streaming across her floor.

She lived there for another 24 years without incident. Then in 1997, Louisville got hit by a record storm. More than 10 inches of rain fell in the city. And Smith’s home — along with most of her neighborhood — was under 18 inches of water.

Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

Ron and Brenda Smith

“We lost our car, we lost all of our furniture,” Smith said. “We had to replace all of the carpet, we had to remove walls. We bought new furniture, we had to buy clothes. It was a mess.”

Once again, the family moved out, rebuilt, and replaced everything.

“After that, we just figured the house wouldn’t flood again,” Smith said. “How often do you get 12 inches of rain? Not very often.”

Then they got hit again — in 2013. By now, the area had been designated as a flood plain, and the Smiths had flood insurance. Once again, they gutted the house and replaced everything.

“We had the money and we thought well, we’re really going to make this our home, you know?” Smith said.

And just as they were finishing up those extensive renovations, the house flooded once again in the spring of 2015.

And that was enough. Smith and her husband abandoned the home and moved away. The county’s Metropolitan Sewer District is in the process of buying them out.

But in Louisville, repeat flood events aren’t something that’s unique to the Smiths, or even to their neighborhood. All over the city, water is traveling in new ways and flooding new places. Some of this is due to development, impervious surfaces and poor planning. Some of it is due to aging infrastructure. And climate change contributes, too. These days in Louisville, rain storms are more intense and more frequent than they used to be.

‘A subtle loading of the dice’

The federal government has 145 years of rainfall data for Louisville. Over that time period, there have only been 11 years with two or more days of at least three inches of rainfall.

At that rate, you’d expect one of those heavy-rainfall years around every 13 years. But four of them have been since 1990. Of Louisville’s top 10 wettest years, half have occurred this century. Eight of the 10 have occurred since the 1990s, while none of the top 10 driest years have occurred since 1987.

Weather Channel meteorologist Jonathan Erdman said the increased frequency and intensity of rainfall in Louisville is directly linked to a warmer climate.

“In a warming climate we expect weather systems to being moving more slowly,” he said. And because the climate is warmer, we expect the atmosphere to be able to hold more water vapor.

“So, as a result, we expect weather systems to be able to produce a bit more rainfall and for there to be more heavy rain events than there would be if the climate was not warming.”

Source: Weather.gov

There are two different scenarios that tend to cause flooding here: one is extended wet periods that saturate the ground and raise the river levels. But the other is simply a large amount of rain in a very short period of time. That’s what’s led to some of the city’s recent flooding events, like in 2009 and 2015.

But it’s difficult to pin any single rain event on climate change.

“The insidious part of climate change, it is thought to be just a subtle loading of the dice as far as more intense heat, more intense rainfall events,” Erdman said.

So, maybe a two-inch rain event 50 years ago would be a two-and-a-half inch rain event today. But that half an inch could make all the difference.

River And Inland Flooding

When it comes to flooding in Louisville, the iconic images are from the devastating 1937 Ohio River flood. In January 1937, 15 inches of rain fell over the course of 12 days. The Ohio River crested at 85.4 feet at McAlpine Lock — about 30 feet higher than flood stage. About 70 percent of the city was submerged.

Metropolitan Sewer Collection, 1981.03, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky.

Flooded and icy intersection at 4th Street and York Street. At 4th Street looking east down York Street. The Louisville Free Public Library is on the left and the First Unitarian Church is on the right.

In the years following that flood, Louisville built an extensive flood protection system. Now, 29 miles of flood wall and earthen levee separates the city from the river, and 16 flood pumping stations sit waiting to be put into action.

One of the largest of those is the Beargrass Creek Pumping Station in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood.

There, eight pumps sit in a brick pump station built in 1952. If all the pumps are turned on, they can move more than 2.4 million gallons of water a minute.

“Anytime we have a rain event — it could be a tenth of an inch of rain — it could affect us based on how we’re going to manage the system,” said MSD Flood Protection Supervisor Dane Anderson.

If the Ohio River is rising, it might call for closing the system’s nearly 150 floodgates and installing 80 floodwall street closures. But even when the river’s not rising, pumps are often deployed to move excess water into streams that then exit into the Ohio.

“It’s quite frequently, every year we have two or three events that we have to manage some of these stations,” Anderson said. “In a sense we’re a big insurance policy that makes sure this city is not flooded.”

August 2009 Flood Collection, University of Louisville Archives and Records Center, Louisville, Kentucky.

Brandeis Avenue and Brook Street, Louisville, Kentucky, August 4, 2009 flood.

But aside from the flooding that comes along the rivers and streams, Louisville is dealing with an increasing drainage problem. That’s what devastated Brenda Smith’s house — not once, but four times.

And in some areas, newer development has played a role.

Dionne Franklin’s family has owned property in Prospect, Kentucky, — right outside Louisville — since the 1970s. The neighborhood known as the Taylor Community was established as an African-American neighborhood in the 1920s. Until recently, the community was surrounded by farmland.

“All of that open land is now concreted over with road, or houses with roofs,” Franklin said. “Most of it is no longer open anymore.”

And that’s forced rain into new areas. Specifically, onto Franklin’s family property. After 30 years without incident, what used to be the house’s yard has turned into new marshland, and the repeated flooding has forced the Franklin family to abandon the property.

MSD Director Tony Parrott said the county has a number of subdivisions dealing with similar issues. He said with the increase in extreme storm events, “the designs of those systems were not anticipating what we’re seeing today.”

Simply put, there’s just too much water. And Louisville has scant resources to invest in the infrastructure needed to manage it.

Multiple Problems, Stretched Resources

For Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District, this increased rainfall causes some serious infrastructure challenges. The system is taxed — everything from the flood protection system protecting the city from the Ohio River to the inland drainage system meant to move water away from low-lying areas within Jefferson County.

And doing all that is complicated by the fact that the city is already sinking millions of dollars — $850 million, to be exact — in a federal consent decree to reduce amount of sewer that the city routinely releases into the Ohio River and its tributaries.

In the older parts of the city, it only takes one-tenth of an inch of rain in an hour to trigger a combined sewer overflow — where the water treatment plant can’t handle the volume of liquid it’s getting, and so a mix of rainwater and diluted sewage is released into places like Beargrass Creek and the Ohio River.

This is a problem for other cities in the region — including Cincinnati and St. Louis — and Louisville is slightly more than halfway through the consent decree. It’s scheduled to be completed by 2024. But in the meantime, it’s sucking money out of MSD’s budget, and other flooding and drainage issues are going unaddressed.

Source: FEMA

One of the casualties is Project DRI — which stands for “Drainage Reduction Initiative.” MSD dedicated millions toward solving neighborhood drainage issues. As recently as Fiscal Year 2016, about $22 million went toward the program. That allocation has since been cut drastically.

“Now because of where our budget is and because we’ve been so focused on dealing with the consent decree, we’re only allocating about 2 million to our DRI program,” Parrott said. “And that is just not enough to address all of the drainage issues we’re seeing throughout Jefferson County.”

Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

The pumps inside MSD’s Beargrass Creek Pump Station.

And those drainage issues are costing money after the fact. Putting aside the money it takes to fix infrastructure once it’s failed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid out more than $35 million in flood insurance claims to Louisville properties since 2000.

Some — like Brenda Smith’s home in Preston Park — have flooded multiple times over very short periods of time.

MSD has spent two years making the case for Louisville to invest more money in drainage and flood protection infrastructure. Parrott estimates it’ll take an additional $4.3 billion over the next 20 years to address the numerous challenges.

But that will require more money from ratepayers. And for two years, the steep rate hike MSD needs to make this plan a reality hasn’t gained traction with local lawmakers.

So for now, the city is moving ahead with Band-Aid repairs to infrastructure, addressing cave-ins and localized flooding as it happens. But the intense rain events continue. And climate models predict as carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase, the downpours will, too.

And for Louisville, it’s not a question of whether there will be another damaging flood that damages property in some of the city’s low-lying areas. It’s a question of when.

This story was produced in partnership with Weather.com’s United States of Climate Change project.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em: Architect Vanessa Keith On How Cities Will Adapt To Climate Change Friday, Oct 27 2017 

The Louisville Sustainability Summit is underway at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage today, with keynote speaker Vanessa Keith speaking later Friday morning. Keith’s book, “2100: A Dystopian Utopia – The City After Climate Change,” focuses not on how to stop our planet from becoming hotter, but how to adapt to the warmer climate if changes aren’t implemented. You can hear our conversation in the media player above.

Highlights from the interview

On why her book is both utopian and dystopian:

“Let’s assume that we have four degrees of warming and what are we going to do with that? That doesn’t mean we don’t do anything now, it actually was intended to be a call to action to say, OK this is the road we’re on, this is where we’re going, this is the best we can do with the road we’re on. That’s the Utopian part. And if we don’t do anything, we can expect to end up here or worse. And right now I think it might actually be worse.”

On the science behind her ideas on the future:

“All of the technologies that we are referencing in the book we are showing solving our problems — all of the techniques because it’s not only technologies, it’s techniques as well — that we are employing are things – and I was absolutely adamant about this with my team – these things have to be things that somebody somewhere, now, is the process of developing. So this is not pie in the sky imaginings without any sort of basis in fact and research. We actually did quite a bit of research.”

Trump Nominates Lexington Coal Engineer For Surface Mining Top Job Thursday, Oct 26 2017 

University of Kentucky

Steve Gardner

President Donald Trump is nominating a Lexington engineer to fill the top spot at the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

The Department of the Interior announced Thursday that Steven Gardner of Lexington consulting firm ECSI has been tapped for the role. Gardner has more than four decades of experience working with and advocating for the mining industry.

In 2011, he testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources on the Obama administration’s Stream Protection Rule, which tightened regulations on surface coal mining.

Gardner and others raised questions about the justification used for the regulation, saying the Office of Surface Mining had prompted his company to change key calculations to lessen the perceived effect of the rule on jobs and coal production.

The rule went on to be finalized in 2016 before it was overturned by Trump this year. Throughout, Gardner remained a vocal critic. He has also continued to use the ‘war on coal’ rhetoric, blaming regulations on Kentucky’s loss of mining jobs, though in various pieces Gardner has also acknowledged the role that other forces — like market factors and mechanization — have played.

In the news release announcing his nomination, Gardner’s expertise was praised by both Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — who will be Gardner’s boss if he’s confirmed — also said Gardner is a good pick for the job.

“When confirmed, Steve will be an unbelievable asset to coal country and the entire team at the Department of the Interior,” Zinke said. “Steve is highly regarded in the mining industry for his extensive experience and insight. Steve will help Interior take the proper steps forward to ensure American Energy dominance is achieved, while also being a responsible steward of American lands. We very much look forward to a quick confirmation process.”

Reached in his office in Lexington Thursday, Gardner declined a request for comment.

Louisville Water Begins Second Phase Of Eastern Parkway Water Main Repair Monday, Oct 23 2017 

Louisville Water Company has started the second phase in replacing a critical water main.

The water main, built in 1923, flows under Eastern Parkway. Louisville started the $25 million Eastern Parkway Project to repair that main last year, citing three main breaks in the last five years. Those breaks flooded crowded intersections, diverted traffic and cost Louisville Water around $1.5 million.

Louisville Water Company spokeswoman Kelley Dearing Smith said pipes are normally supposed to last 100 years, so this isn’t abnormal. She said the project, which is on budget to finish repairing the 6.4 miles of pipe by April 2019, is critical to the city.

“It’s a very critical piece of our infrastructure that’s deep underground,” Dearing Smith said. “If it breaks, it can potentially be catastrophic for the city because we’re carrying millions and millions of gallons of water.”

Courtesy Louisville Water Company

Crews place the main along Eastern Pkwy using a Buckeye Traction Ditcher

Dearing Smith said that water goes to homes, businesses, schools and more.

The first phase of the project repaired sections of the main from Grinstead Drive to Beargrass Creek and Poplar Level Road. Phase two will continue that, repairing Eastern Parkway from Beargrass Creek and Poplar Level Road to Crittenden Drive and Interstate 65. That phase is expected to finish next fall.

Dearing Smith said the project will not require turning off residents’ water, but will divert traffic in the area.

Pipe infrastructure has also plagued Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District, which has hundreds of cave-ins every year. MSD estimates repairing and upgrading its infrastructure would cost up to $496 million.

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.

Next Page »