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The Hexa-Octa Incident

On March 17, 1977, employees at the Morris Forman plant noticed a strong, chemical odor that made them sick. It was the beginning of an environmental incident that would set legal precedent in the United States.

It took more than a week to identify the substance: a mixture of hexachloropentadiene and octachlorocyclopentene, quickly abbreviated to "hexa" and "octa." They were highly toxic chemicals used in pesticides. The contaminated treatment plant was shut down on March 29th, discharging 100 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the river each day.

The U.S. Army sent teams wearing protective gear into the sewers to find the source of the chemicals. The FBI joined the investigation. And on June 7th, a federal grand jury charged Donald E. Distler, president of Kentucky Liquid Recycling, and two of his employees with dumping toxic chemicals into the sewers.

The chemicals, the courts later found, were wastes that had been sent to Distler’s company for disposal. Distler’s company had dumped them down a manhole in western Louisville.

The treatment plant was shut down for nearly three months while the contaminated material was removed —  three months of discharging all the raw sewage into the river. It took another two years to remove the contaminated material from the sewer lines —  years during which the raw sewage from these lines was shunted around the plant and into the river.

At the left, an Environmental Protection Agency specialist wears protective gear while descending into the contaminated sewers to investigate the situation, assisted by MSD's Donald Thomas.

Courier-Journal and Louisville Times
Photo by Paul Schuhmann

In September, 1979, the month the cleanup ended, Distler was found guilty —  the first time an individual was convicted in a trial of federal criminal charges of polluting a waterway. He was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $50,000. After appealing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he was sent to prison in early 1982.

And in January, 1983, the companies that had originated the waste —  Velsicol Chemical Corp. of Chicago and Chem-Dyne Corp. of Hamilton, Ohio —  agreed to pay MSD $1.9 million for the medical costs of employees and the costs of cleaning up the sewers and the treatment plant.

Toxic chemicals dumped into Louisville's sewers in 1977 caused the biggest environmental disaster in MSD's history.  In the photo at left, MSD employees wearing protective suits remove contaminated grit from the treatment plan

Courier-Journal and Louisville Times
Photo by Dan Dry


At the right, raw sewage spews into the Ohio River at the Morris Forman plan — as it did for three months while the treatment plan was shut down.

Courier-Journal and Louisville Times Photo by Billy Davis III

The Sewer Explosions

Shortly after 5:15 a.m. on Friday, February 13, 1981, two women going to work at a hospital drove under the railroad overpass on Hill Street near 12th Street. There was a gigantic blast, and their car was hurled into the air and onto its side.

At the same time, a police helicopter was heading toward the downtown area when the officers saw an unforgettable sight: a series of explosions, "like a bombing run," erupting along the streets of Old Louisville and through the University of Louisville campus.

The sewer explosions started here, at a railroad underpass on Hill Street.   The overturned car can be seen in the photo at the left.

Courier-Journal and Louisville Times Photo by Larry Spitzer

More than two miles of Louisville streets were pockmarked with craters where manholes had been. Several blocks of Hill Street had fallen into the collapsed, 12-foot-diameter sewer line. Miraculously, no one was hurt seriously, but homes and businesses were extensively damaged and some families had to be evacuated. Louisville was in the headlines and on broadcast news throughout the country for several days.

The cause of the explosion was traced to the Ralston-Purina soybean processing plant southeast of the university campus, where thousands of gallons of a highly flammable solvent, hexane, had spilled into the sewer lines. The fumes from the hexane created an explosive mixture, which lay in wait in the larger sewer lines. As the women drove under the overpass, a spark from their car apparently ignited the gases.

Several blocks of Hill Street soon became an open trench, as crews cleared away the debris and prepared to replace the sewer line. The trench remained open throughout the summer while work continued. (The stench was so bad that MSD tried using huge blocks of restroom-type deodorant to try to mask the odor — without success.)

It took 20 months to repair the sewer lines, and another several months to finish the work on the streets.

Ralston-Purina pleaded guilty of four counts of violating federal environmental laws, and paid a fine of $62,500. In February, 1984, the company agreed to pay MSD more than $18 million in damages. Many millions more were paid to other government agencies and private individuals who suffered damage.

As for the soybean plant: Ralston-Purina used more than $2 million in city industrial bonds to rebuild it in 1983 — and then sold it in 1984.

MSD History continued 

Last Updated: February 01, 2012

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