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In West Louisville, Opposition To Proposed Sustainable Energy Plants Grows

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Opposition to two proposed methane plants in West Louisville is mounting.

The dispute pits those working to reclaim vacant spaces with green energy alternatives against residents concerned about the potential odor and traffic the plants could bring to their already-struggling neighborhoods.

About 100 activists and West Louisville residents attended a community meeting Thursday night hosted by Metro Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3. It was the latest in a series of public discussions about the proposal, drawing the highest attendance to date.

Woolridge has been steadily fighting the proposed facilities and informing residents about plans for the sites in the Russell and California neighborhoods.

Nature’s Methane, an Indiana-based green energy company, wants to place two anaerobic digesters in Jefferson County. The plants would convert organic waste into methane gas. They are planned for the West Louisville FoodPort at 30th Street and West Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and near the Heaven Hill Distillery on 17th and Maple streets.

Company representatives have been attending the neighborhood meetings in the hopes of educating residents about their plans.

So far, residents aren't convinced.

Attendees of Thursday's meeting said they're skeptical of natural gas production in their residential neighborhoods. Concerns spanned a wide range, from odors that the plants could emit to traffic created by trucking food waste into their neighborhoods.

Nature’s Methane representatives expect “20-30 trucks will visit the site each day," according to a fact sheet the company made available to residents.

Chief Executive Steve Estes and other officials told residents Thursday they would do what they can to mitigate risks. They said materials would be delivered in “sealed or covered trucks, or self-contained compacting dumpsters.”

West Louisville has many neighborhoods struggling with issues ranging from vacant structures to crime. Frustrated activists said Thursday they have enough work addressing the areas' existing challenges.

Members of REACT Louisville, an environmental justice group, and the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression -- who called it "environmental racism" -- both spoke at the meeting.

Those groups, among others, have started gathering signatures for a petition and plan to hold additional meetings aimed at organizing the community against the proposed plants.

Councilwoman Jessica Green, D-1, stopped by the meeting Thursday to voice her concerns as well. She said many of her constituents feel "dumped on and discarded.” She also suggested company officials didn’t understand what they were getting into when they decided on West Louisville for the proposed digesters.

And that’s part of why residents are upset: Many said nobody asked them before deciding on the Russell and California neighborhoods.

“As we say no, are you listening?” said Mayetta Brawliss, who lives in West Louisville and worries about health hazards. “Can you take it to a rural area?”

Jeana Dunlap, director of the Metro Office of Vacant and Public Properties, defended the project, saying it would bring economic development to the area. She said Mayor Greg Fischer's administration supports the project because it puts vacant space to use and would create sustainable energy in the area.

Dunlap also sits on a community council that helped plan the project at the FoodPort. And although that group included some residents, attendees of Thursday's meeting were clear that the public engagement process on the project, in their view, has fallen short.

Dunlap said the Fischer administration is sensitive to residents' reservations.

“I think the mayor definitely supports engaging,” Dunlap said. “I think he would be concerned about anyone perceiving this as big business imposing its will on West Louisville.”

After the meeting, Dunlap said the issue is whether that engagement in the community is actually working.

“I can honestly say there has been a lot of effort put in engagement, but the question is how well are we getting our points across,” she said.

Nature’s Methane representatives said they have been working through the city’s permitting process.

That includes obtaining a conditional-use permit from the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment and an operating license for composting through Public Works. The Metropolitan Sewer District needs to weigh in, too, because the plant would cause a significant amount of wastewater to be pumped into West Louisville’s sewers.

The application for one of the plants is scheduled to go before BOZA Aug. 17.

Woolridge said she hopes the response in West Louisville will give the agency pause.

"Hopefully they can persuade — we can persuade BOZA that this isn’t something we want or need in a residential area,” she said.

Dunlap said she would look into suggesting an environmental impact study for the projects. However, such a study is not required.

Councilman David James has also scheduled a community meeting about one of the plants for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the California Community Center, 1600 West St. Catherine St.

Clarification: A previous version of this story attributed the term "environmental racism" to Councilwoman Woolridge. The story has been updated to reflect the proper attribution of the quote.