The controversial west Louisville anaerobic digester is no more, but Indiana-based STAR BioEnergy has not ruled out returning to the site in the future or building a digester elsewhere.
“We are not giving up on west Louisville or metro Louisville. We are not giving up; we are just pulling back,” Steve Estes, president of STAR BioEnergy, told Insider Louisville.
STAR BioEnergy was seeking a conditional use permit from the Board of Zoning Adjustment to construct the digester at 17th and Maple streets, but the board delayed making a decision. Before its second scheduled zoning meeting, the company withdrew its plans for the digester, which would have turned bourbon stillage from Heaven Hill Distilleries into methane gas.
The project was highly controversial and was a target of criticism. In fact, this is the second time that an outcry from residents has forced a digester project out of west Louisville.
Last year, nonprofit Seed Capital Kentucky dropped STAR BioEnergy’s digester project from its plans for the West Louisville FoodPort at 30th Street. The company was then called Nature’s Methane.
STAR BioEnergy tried to appease west Louisville residents by offering $5 million worth of investment that could be used for economic development, job training, college instruction, community center offices, urban gardening and/or athletic facilities. That commitment still stands, but it has one string attached.
“The community benefits agreement doesn’t go away,” Estes said. “When we build a digester at that location, that is in full force.”
Metro Councilwoman Mary Woolridge (D-3), who has been a staunch opponent of the project since the beginning, cheered at the news that STAR BioEnergy had backed off.
“When people are united, they cannot be defeated. I think this is not a victory for me, it’s a victory for the people, the people who live in these communities where the biodigester was proposed to be put,” Woolridge said.
“And let me send a warning out here right now. If you try to put it in anyone else’s neighborhood, I’ll be just as adamantly opposed and visible as I was when you tried to put it in west Louisville. Because it does not, and I repeat, it does not need to be in a residential neighborhood.”
Martina Kunnecke, president of the organization Neighborhood Planning & Preservation and leader within the opposition group, said she believes the digester technology is good but agreed that it shouldn’t be in a residential neighborhood. She counted Thursday’s news as a win.
“It is so good to have a victory for a change,” Kunnecke said. “It demonstrates what concerted community effort can bring about.”
Had STAR BioEnergy not made Thursday’s announcement, a coalition of roughly a dozen local and state politicians planned to meet with Mayor Greg Fischer on Friday and urge him to withdraw his support for the digester.
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, however, Fischer said he recently had been discussing scrapping the west Louisville project: “A few weeks ago, I urged STAR BioEnergy and Heaven Hill to pull back on the biodigester proposed for 17th and Maple streets, and I’m pleased to see that they have done that.”
Fischer reiterated previous statements that the technology is a safe and sustainable way to help the environment by reusing waste and keeping waste out of landfills.
Although STAR BioEnergy pulled out of the west Louisville project, the company has identified several possible sites for a future digester and is looking in the city and the region.
Estes told IL the company is looking at a site near Morris Forman Treatment Plant, the Outer Loop Recycling & Disposal Facility — which several people have suggested as a better alternative — and one other location. It also has identified eight other sites throughout Kentucky.
“We are working hard on which of the other projects outside of Louisville we are going to focus on to get built in the next 18 to 24 months,” Estes said. In Louisville, the company will try to separate “the facts versus the misinformation that continues to be put forth by people for whatever reason.”
STAR BioEnergy is partnered with GE, which has agreed to provide the technology for its digesters. Estes plans to bring representatives from GE to a Louisville Metro Council meeting and to any neighborhood meetings in the future to answer questions about the technology.
Estes said he and others with his company will work harder to inform the public about digesters and ensure there is community involvement in future projects.
“We can’t make the same mistake twice,” he said.
The biggest criticism to come down on STAR BioEnergy was the perceived lack of input from west Louisville residents. Community leaders previously said if they had been approached from the beginning about the project, there likely would have been less backlash.
“The company realizes it could have done a better job at the beginning of communicating what they do and how they work with communities,” Brian Zoeller, STAR BioEnergy’s attorney for the project, said in a news release.
“What STAR does is provide value to communities through providing good jobs in a growing industry, lessening the burden on landfills, reducing the carbon footprint caused by decaying organic materials, and creating renewable energy out of otherwise discarded materials. Their goal is, and has always been, to create a win-win opportunity for the community as well as their business partners.”
In a the release, STAR BioEnergy acknowledged that heated debate surrounding the digester had to do with the location as well as the city’s history of placing harmful industries in west Louisville.
“We recognize that the concerns we heard at that (Board of Zoning Adjustment) meeting had to do with more than just building a digester,” Allan Latts, chief operating officer of Heaven Hill, said in the release. “It has to do with a legacy of being overlooked and disrespected in west Louisville. Trust now needs to be rebuilt.”