This rendering shows what a biodigester facility can look like. This one was proposed along 17th Street. | Courtesy of Star Energy Distributed
This rendering shows what a biodigester facility can look like. This one was proposed along 17th Street. | Courtesy of Star Energy Distributed

A Louisville Metro Council committee has proposed implementing even more stringent regulations regarding where private businesses can build anaerobic digesters, which turn organic waste into methane gas and other byproducts.

“We are down to one site in Jefferson County,” said Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, who took issue with the proposed changes, which he argued would limit digesters to the Jefferson RiverPort International business park only. “That’s the intent, I guess.”

Fellow Councilman Tom Owen, D-8, said he believed that, depending on the interpretation, the proposed wording of the regulations would completely prohibit digesters in Jefferson County.

“I am not convinced that they are dangerous. I am not convinced that they are odor-producing always. I believe they are part of our future,” he said, adding that he would support one in his district because it would reduce waste and the city’s carbon emissions.

The Planning Commission already had tightened the regulations originally proposed by Louisville Metro Planning and Design Services staff. The commission recommended that the city limit the digesters to properties zoned M-3, or heavy industrial, and properties that are at least a half mile from homes, churches, hospitals, schools and other sensitive areas.

The Planning Commission’s recommendations would limit the construction of anaerobic digesters to three areas in Louisville: Jefferson RiverPort International, property near the Morris Forman Water Quality Treatment Center and property near the Outer Loop Recycling & Disposal Facility.

The commission also recommended a caveat that would allow the Board of Zoning Adjustment to reduce the buffer between sensitive areas and digesters from a half mile to a quarter mile. That caveat would open up additional sites, including some in Newburg and other residential areas.

Once the proposed language reached the Metro Council planning and zoning committee Wednesday, however, the caveat was taken out, and committee members voted to add daycares and airports to the list of sensitive areas.

“I think our airport is growing as fast as it can. There is not that much land left there. We don’t need any more odors. We already have the landfill,” said Councilwoman Vicki Aubrey Welch, D-13.

If proposed regulations are approved, anaerobic digesters would only be allowed in the teal areas. | Courtesy of Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government
If proposed regulations are approved, anaerobic digesters would only be allowed in the teal areas. | Courtesy of Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government

Planning and Design Services staff couldn’t say Wednesday night if the inclusion of airports would completely eliminate or severely restrict properties near the Outer Loop landfill where digesters could be built.

The committee passed the proposed regulations, along with their changes, and the matter now will move on to the full Louisville Metro Council. Members said they hope to implement some concrete regulations before mid-September when a moratorium on digester construction ends.

There likely will be a lively debate during the full council meeting over whether airports should be designated a sensitive area in the regulations. Some council members think that the inclusion is too limiting and that a digester near the Outer Loop landfill would be the perfect guinea pig for the city.

“There’s been a lot of controversy, and a lot of folks don’t want it in their areas,” said Councilman Pat Mulvihill, D-10. “It could be a great place where all of us can learn, and we can learn if it will be safe.”

Mulvihill offered conflicting personal opinions during the meeting. Despite indicating he would possibly favor removing airports from the regulations, he also motioned to increase the buffer from a half mile to a full mile. The motion was not seconded by anyone on the committee.

However, Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3, and Councilman David James, D-6 — who aren’t committee members but were in attendance —  said they would favor increasing the buffer to 1 mile.

Woolridge reiterated past sentiments that the city was trying to limit digesters to the historically impoverished West End and keep them out of the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods in the East End. “I am absolutely livid,” she said. “It’s not OK. It may wind up on your backyard, on your front porch. …I think this is a deplorable situation. People want to continue to dump on people who have been dumped on the most.”

Although she did not explicitly support the 1-mile buffer idea, Welch, who represents the South End, said her constituents feel dumped on too.

The discussion among the committee and other Metro Council members in attendance got heated at points — similar to the community meetings held regarding digesters in the past where citizens expressed concerns about safety, odor and traffic.

City planning coordinator Brian Mabry noted that the topic has attracted considerable interest from citizens. Six community meetings held regarding digester regulations had a total of 186 attendees, “which is very large for zoning matters which don’t really interest people until it’s at their back door.”

Mabry noted that there was some overlap in attendance from meeting to meeting.

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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]