Nature's Methane chief operating officer Mark Stoermann explained how anaerobic digesters work. | By Caitlin Bowling
Nature’s Methane chief operating officer Mark Stoermann explained how anaerobic digesters work. | By Caitlin Bowling

Dozens of west Louisville residents gathered Thursday evening to express opposition to two biofuel plants proposed for the Russell and California neighborhoods.

“We have 50 years of history here with us feeling discarded and dumped on,” Louisville Metro Councilwoman Jessica Green, D-1, said at a public meeting about the plants. “They don’t understand — we don’t want to be guinea pigs.”

Green represents residents near Rubbertown and said she is concerned the plants will be an extension of those industrial facilities that have been criticized for releasing toxins and causing higher rates of illness.

The projects proposed by Indiana-based alternative energy company Nature’s Methane would place two anaerobic digesters in the West End, one at 15th Street between Breckenridge and Maple streets and another at the West Louisville Food Port site at 30th Street between Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Main Street.

Anaerobic digesters take organic waste such as food and wood chips and turn it into methane gas, which then is sold. Mark Stoermann, chief operating officer of Nature’s Methane, said 70 percent to 80 percent of the waste at the 15th Street digester would come from Heaven Hill Distilleries, which has operations right next to the property.

Green and many of the approximately 90 meeting attendees said they were concerned that the biofuel facilities will generate a burdensome amount of truck traffic and release an odor that would cause a nuisance similar to other industrial facilities in the area.

They also fear the plants would pose a health and safety problem for nearby residents and drive down already low home values.

“They treat the community like a strip mine,” said Martina Kunnecke, president of the local advocacy group Neighborhood Planning and Preservation.

Metro Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3, hosted the public meeting at the Louisville Urban League. Also in attendance were Stoermann; Caroline Heine, project director for the West Louisville Food Port, where one of the biofuel plants will be located; Steve Estes, CEO of Nature’s Methane’s parent company Star Distributed Energy; and Brian Zoeller, an attorney with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP who is representing the anerobic digester project.

Steve Estes, CEO of Nature's Methane's parent company Star Distributed Energy, spoke to the crowd from a podium at the Louisville Urban League. | By Caitlin Bowling
Steve Estes, CEO of Nature’s Methane’s parent company Star Distributed Energy, spoke to the crowd from a podium at the Louisville Urban League. | By Caitlin Bowling

Stoermann has acknowledged many times that a slight odor will be emitted from the facility, but he said it will not impact nearby residents.

“I will never tell people there is no odor,” he said.

In response to residents’ concerns that a digester could malfunction and potentially explode, Stoermann noted he worked at a digester for years with his sons and never felt unsafe.

Neither he nor other speakers on behalf of the digesters know how the projects would impact home values since a study hasn’t been done. There also are no digesters operating in an urban area in the United States to compare the project to.

The digester will make use of food that would otherwise sit in a landfill, Zoeller said. The attorney added, “In our hearts, we believe these are good for the community. They are good for the environment.”

Several speakers noted that other businesses have felt they were helping west Louisville by locating there but in fact created nuisances for residents.

Thursday was not the first time residents had made their concerns known. Nature’s Methane has hosted a series of community meetings to inform the public about their plans. Each time they’ve been met with backlash.

West Louisville resident Donovan Taylor said the company should have reached out to professionals in the neighborhoods and people who are “culturally aware” who could provide input. Those same people could have acted as a bridge between residents and the company executives, he said.

Proponents of the digester facilities have touted the project as sustainable — the city will consider the project a compost facility. They also say it will bring investment to low-income neighborhoods, in addition to creating 10 jobs at each digester.

Louisville-based Qk4 Engineering is conducting a traffic study for the project, which Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government requires. An environmental impact study is not required since it is classified as a composting facility, but Nature’s Methane representatives said they would look into having one done.

The company said in an information packet handed out that leaders are coordinating with Louisville’s workforce development organization KentuckianaWorks and the Louisville Urban League to find qualified employees within the surrounding neighborhoods.

However, residents at the meeting were unimpressed by the number of jobs the projects would create. They also questioned whether the search for west Louisville workers was more than just lip service.

Money for the digester projects, which will cost $35 million to $40 million each, will come from investors interested in alternative energy projects, Stoermann said. Each investor will receive a 15 percent return on investment from the profits.

Nature’s Methane also received preliminary approval for $2.1 million in state tax incentives for each digester. The incentives will be awarded as the company creates jobs. It must create six at each digester to receive the full amount of tax incentives.

The digesters are expected to be profitable from day one, Estes said. They make money from selling the methane gas and an element-rich soil that is a byproduct of the process. Nature’s Methane also plans to sell its renewable energy credit to the oil company BP, which is required to have a set number of credits by law.

The first digester project, the site at 15th Street, will go before the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment on Aug. 17.

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Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]