A rendering of the proposed anaerobic digester | Courtesy of Star BioEnergy
A rendering of the proposed anaerobic digester | Courtesy of Star BioEnergy

Metro Councilman David James (D-6) and respected environmental lawyer Tom FitzGerald tell Insider Louisville they are not in favor of the proposed placement of an anaerobic digester in west Louisville because of its proximity to homes.

The digester has been a divisive topic for much of this year.

Indiana company STAR BioEnergy wants to build a digester that would turn bourbon stillage from Heaven Hill Distilleries and food waste into methane gas. The proposed site is across the street from Heaven Hill at 17th and Maple streets — in James’ west Louisville district.

STAR BioEnergy will seek approvals for the project from the Louisville Board of Zoning Adjustment at 6 p.m. on Dec. 7.

Some have rallied around the alternative energy technology and the company’s investment in the historically low-income neighborhood, while others worry about the nuisance the digester could cause nearby neighbors.

“Does this make sense for the community? Does it makes sense for the neighbors?” FitzGerald told Insider Louisville. “My sense is this is not a good location for the company because there is a lack of a buffer.”

Homes sit directly across the street from the site to the north and south, and if the digester is built, Simmons College of Kentucky and Kentucky State University will have operations right next door.

The most significant risk is odor, which can impact the quality of life for nearby residents, said FitzGerald, head of the Frankfort, Ky.-based Kentucky Resource Council, an environmentally focused nonprofit that provides legal and technical assistance to individuals, communities and organizations.

And while the risk of a methane explosion is minor, he said, it is still a risk.

“It is not a problem with the technology as much in this case, as much as no technology is error-free, and here, there is no margin of error,” FitzGerald said.

In an email sent to constituents Nov. 17, Councilman James provided KRC’s opinion about the digester project as well as documents from STAR BioEnergy about the benefits and reasons it wants to build in west Louisville.

When asked about the email, James told IL he approached FitzGerald for his opinion on the anaerobic digester technology and its placement in west Louisville. FitzGerald told James he’d previously prepared a formal written opinion and sent it to STAR BioEnergy representatives and Theresa Zawacki, senior policy advisor for Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development arm.

The information provided by FitzGerald has not been widely disseminated beyond its inclusion in James’ Nov. 17 email, and FitzGerald never received a response from the city but has had talks with representatives of STAR BioEnergy.

James wrote in the email that he was worried about the negative impacts the digester could have on his constituents.

“I am pro technology however, I am extremely concerned about the anaerobic digester in such a densely populated area. The constituents that I represent in District 6 deserve to live in a neighborhood with minimal environmental health concerns,” he wrote. “The possibility of odors coming from the facility and affecting the quality of life for the residents causes me great apprehension.”

James told IL he is not in favor of the digester being built so close to residences. If STAR BioEnergy decided to buy the homes surrounding the property, he said, “that would be a different story.”

Also, James said he was particularly disappointed in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expert’s lack of insight into the project.

Mayor Greg Fischer’s office tapped the EPA expert to comment on the science behind the technology during a community meeting. The EPA expert did not review plans for the proposed west Louisville digester and could not offer any specific comments on the science behind that project — every digester runs differently depending on the makeup of waste going into it.

The meeting was pointless, James said, and he felt he personally knew more about the proposed digester project than the EPA expert.

An alternative site?

STAR BioEnergy representatives repeatedly have stated that anaerobic digester technology is safe, provides an environmentally friendly way to recycle food waste, and helps extend the lives of landfills.

Numerous people, including James, have said they aren’t against the technology itself.

“The anaerobic digestion is an organic process,” FitzGerald said. “Modern landfills are essentially anaerobic digesters in the ground.”

Although representatives previously said the digester will emit a slight odor, documents provided by STAR BioEnergy in James’ email state that it won’t smell. Filters, a pressure-controlled building, and enclosed trucks will eliminate odor, the company said.

Noise from the facility “should be quieter than a conversation between two people,” STAR BioEnergy states.

The documents also state that there is an anaerobic digester in Oldham County at the ConAgra plant near the Oldham County Family YMCA that has operated without incident or detection.

“I didn’t even know it was there until somebody called,” Peggy Kilgore, executive director at Oldham County Family YMCA, told IL.

Kilgore has never heard complaints about the digester, and she noted that there are two neighborhoods behind ConAgra’s operations.

However, the digester at the ConAgra plant is less than a quarter of the size of the proposed digester in west Louisville. STAR BioEnergy’s latest plans call for four 44-foot waste tanks.

Attorney Tom FitzGerald noted that, if approved, this would be the first anaerobic digester STAR BioEnergy has built as a company, and “given the relative lack of experience,” the company should look to build elsewhere first.

“I don’t think that the California neighborhood needs to be the guinea pigs,” he said.

Keith Hackett, Louisville’s director of Solid Waste Management Services, has said previously that the digester will help cut down on waste headed to landfills and extend the life of the landfills.

As proposed, 20 to 30 sealed trucks a day would dump waste at the digester, while stillage from Heaven Hill Distilleries would be piped to the plant.

FitzGerald argued that if the goal is to reduce landfill waste, a better spot for the digester would be on property near the Outer Loop Recycling & Disposal Facility at 2673 Outer Loop, just west of Interstate 65.

In a formal opinion, Fitzgerald wrote: “With due respect, if the (STAR BioEnergy) biodigester is being looked at as part of the effort to divert waste from the landfill, the location of such a biodigester adjacent to or close to the landfill makes eminently more sense since such a location could be much more easily integrated into the present collection system, collection trucks already haul Metro waste to the landfill, and the collection process could be altered to make ‘dry’ waste collection runs to the landfill and ‘organic’ waste collection runs to the biodigesters using existing equipment and routes.”

The area already has interstate gas pipelines to transport the methane, according to FitzGerald.

It also is close to the United Parcel Services’ Louisville operations, his comments point out. UPS plans to increase the number of compressed natural gas vehicles in its fleet and could use the methane.

“This location would be ideal,” FitzGerald wrote.

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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]