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

Louisville Metro Council on Thursday passed regulations that will limit anaerobic digesters, also known as methane plants, to one area of Jefferson County: near the Outer Loop landfill.

“It’s always easier to loosen the belt than it is to tighten it,” said Councilwoman Madonna Flood, D-24.

With 17 votes in favor, the council approved new regulations for anaerobic digesters, an alternative energy process that turns organic waste such as food and wood chips into methane gas, fertilizer and other byproducts. The regulations dictate where and under what circumstances a methane plant can be constructed in the county.

No one voted against the regulations. However, four council members were absent; Councilman David Tandy, D-4, abstained; and four council members, all Republicans, voted present, which indicated they neither favored nor opposed the measure.

Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3, who forcefully opposed methane plants, could be heard saying “yes, yes” as the vote was tallied. Under the approved regulations, such facilities won’t be allowed in West Louisville where her district is located.

Although she did not support the regulations and called them “short-sighted,” Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, said she appreciated all the residents who have spoken out about their concerns regarding methane plants’ potential odor and health hazards. She opted to vote present, rather than no, “out of respect.”

“Having this dialogue is important to the overall health of our community,” she said.

Prior to Thursday’s meeting, companies wishing to build an anaerobic digester in Louisville had a few more location options, but Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, called for the council to insert language into the regulations that would create a 1-mile buffer between digesters and homes, churches, hospitals, schools, the airport terminal and other sensitive areas.

The 1-mile buffer eliminated most potential sites, with the exception of land near the Outer Loop landfill, which prominent environmental lawyer Tom Fitzgerald previously stated would be a perfect spot for an anaerobic digester.

This map shows the area near the Outer Loop landfill where methane plants will be allowed, as well as neighborhoods with their own zoning rights. | Rendering by Develop Louisville
This map shows the area near the Outer Loop landfill where methane plants will be allowed, as well as neighborhoods with their own zoning rights. | Rendering by Develop Louisville

There are “a ton” of places in Jefferson County, said Councilman Rick Blackwell, D-12, that could house a methane plant if they are rezoned M-3. He added that these zoning regulations don’t apply to 12 neighborhoods in Louisville that retain their zoning rights.

Those neighborhoods include Anchorage, Douglass Hills, Graymoor-Devondale, Hurstbourne, Indian Hills, Jeffersontown, Lyndon, Middletown, Prospect, Shively, St. Matthews and St. Regis Park. Those neighborhoods would need to pass their own regulation regarding anaerobic digesters.

Two other council members  — Councilman David James, D-6, and Councilwoman Vicki Aubrey Welch, D-13 — who supported the 1-mile buffer weren’t in attendance.

Welch was unable to attend Thursday night’s meeting because of a family obligation, but in a letter, she encouraged her fellow council members to institute the 1-mile buffer rule. She said she didn’t want a methane plant in her constituents’ backyards.

Incidentally, her backyard is now the only place an anaerobic digester can be built, unless other property is rezoned or the regulations are changed. The Outer Loop landfill is in Welch’s district.

“We have constant garbage trucks dropping garbage on the roads along the way to the landfill, scrapping metals being dropped on our roads, airplane noise throughout the night with vibrations in our households, and excessively long train wait times usually during rush hours. We also have strong noxious odors from the landfill,” she said. “We don’t need more bad odors, more trucks and more garbage on our roads.”

During the public comment session at the beginning of the council meeting, Brian Zoeller — an attorney for Bingham Greenebaum Doll who represented a company attempting to build an anaerobic digester in Louisville — took to task council members who oppose digesters. “A few loud, misinformed voices” have been allowed to shape the conversation around anaerobic digesters, he said.

Brian Zoeller
Brian Zoeller

“It would be one thing if the council’s apparent willingness to pass these changes were based on facts alone such as expert testimony, science or other safety data about such projects, but instead, these changes are being fueled with rumors, spreading of fear and misinformation, emotional rants and unfortunately a healthy dose of political opportunism,” he said.

“Through all of this, no one on this council has had to 1) bare the burden of proof that digesters are unsafe, more unsafe than a local Speedway gas station or more unsafe than the use of natural gas in your home’s kitchen stove, or 2) answer the question ‘What if you’re wrong?'” he continued. “What will you say when hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in digester projects across the commonwealth, producing jobs and supporting existing businesses? What will you say to those who lose jobs when Louisville-based companies decide to close operations and relocate to greener pastures because they can’t use this technology?”

In addition to potentially driving some existing Louisville businesses away, Zoeller said, harsh regulations could prevent other companies from locating here.

“When we have a chance to be a leader and to be recognized across the country for embracing a creative sustainable solution, the city displays a lack of vision and spins its wheels and falls further behind what once were our peer cities of Indianapolis, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Nashville,” he said. “It is not too late.”

How the regulations got to this point

Louisville Metro Planning and Design Services presented its proposal for how anaerobic digesters should be regulated last month at a Metro Planning Commission meeting.

The Planning Commission tightened the regulations even further, recommending that the city limit the anaerobic 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. However, the commission’s proposed regulations allowed the half-mile buffer to be dropped to a quarter mile as long as the company building the methane plant received permission from the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

Signs like these were a common sight at any meeting regarding anaerobic digesters. | Photo by Joe Sonka
Signs like these were a common sight at any meeting regarding anaerobic digesters. | Photo by Joe Sonka

The Planning Commission’s recommendations limited 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.

On Aug. 31, Metro Council’s planning and zoning committee tightened the reins more by adding the Louisville International Airport to the list of sensitive areas and eliminating the possibility of a quarter-mile buffer zone.

The discussion of regulating methane plants started after residents of West Louisville protested against such a facility next to Heaven Hill Distilleries in the California neighborhood. Indiana company STAR BioEnergy then called off its plans for the digester, but president Steve Estes vowed to find a suitable location within Jefferson County for another digester project.

Estes and STAR BioEnergy have been in a holding pattern since February when Metro Council passed a temporary ban on digesters while the city worked to craft regulations.

Before the council meeting Thursday in response to a tweet about his lack of comment on the proposed regulations, Estes tweeted “What can I say? Obviously the investment isn’t wanted — too bad.”

“Other counties are welcoming us,” he added. “We will go to those locations.”

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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]