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In 1941, America was headed to war. The effort would require massive amounts of raw materials and all manufacturing hands on deck. But there was a shortage of one particularly critical material: rubber. Enough of a shortage that the federal government ordered rubber rationing and commandeered facilities like Dupont’s Louisville-based synthetic rubber plant. That plant in west Louisville went on to churn out a synthetic rubber, called Neoprene, for another 67 years. But soon, the plant will come down, brick by brick, pipe by pipe.
Bob Singleton manages the plant, and he’s also overseeing its decontamination. That’s the first step of many it will take to get to the point where they can actually demolish the buildings. Workers have almost finished decontaminating and cleaning every pipe and tank.
“You see all the tanks are opened up now. These tanks are open. They’ve been cleaned.”
Singleton says another crew will come in later to remove the vintage plant’s asbestos. He leads the way through a steel jungle of steaming pipes and gaping tanks that once held a toxic brew of petrochemicals and minerals. He says workers used a solvent to flush the hazardous chemicals out. What came out was piped into trucks which drove the liquid off to an incinerator. And then workers flushed everything out with massive amounts of water.
“We use steam –that’s also part of the decontamination. Once the lines are clear, depending on what’s in there, we’ll flush it with steam.”
Singleton leads the way up metal stairs into a building full of conveyer belts and more pipes. He says these too have been decontaminated and power-washed. The idea is protect workers who will later dismantle these machines and tanks and pipes and buildings. The idea is also to keep toxic chemicals out of landfills. But during its lifetime, the plant hasn’t managed to keep toxic chemicals out of the air. According to the most recent EPA data, this plant put more toxics into Louisville’s air than any other registered facility except a local LG&E power plant. That’s millions of pounds of chemicals that cause cancer and chemicals that are toxic to the cardiovascular and nervous systems. The EPA’s next annual report on toxic chemical releases should show the effects of the plant’s closure. But years of past emissions can’t be erased.
“This is the finishing area here. And all this is coming down. The lab building is coming down.”
Once all the lines are clean, a demolition crew will rip everything out and knock down all the buildings. A few pieces of the plant will be reused in other Dupont facilities. And the bricks will be used to fill in basements before a final layer of gravel is spread over the entire site. But most of it will end up in landfills. And after it’s gone, DuPont still has an obligation to the state to clean-up any contaminated groundwater. A division of waste management spokesman told me the site will likely never be pristine enough to be used for anything but industry. And developers would still have to test the soil for contaminants before breaking ground. But Singleton says DuPont typically doesn’t allow outsiders to develop on its former industrial sites because of liability.
Back outside, near the train cars that once brought in raw materials, Singleton reflects on the plant’s final days.
“Well, I hate to this happening. It’s been a part of my life for a number of years. We’ve got several people here whose jobs are going away that worked here 40 years. It’s a bit of a sad event, really.”
Although it’s likely not a sad event for Louisville’s air quality, the city is still home to plenty of other facilities emitting toxic chemicals. For WFPL, I’m Kristin Espeland.