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West Louisville Residents Divided Over $5 Million Biodigester Deal

A deal struck between two companies and a group of West Louisville community leaders over a controversial biodigester project is drawing the ire of California neighborhood residents.

Mayor Greg Fischer on Thursday announced the $5 million agreement between a handful of community leaders — including the Rev. Kevin Cosby of Simmons College and St. Stephen Church — and STAR BioEnergy and the Heaven Hill distillery. The money will be used for community projects and initiatives.

Months ago, STAR BioEnergy, an Indiana-based green energy company, proposed a biodigester site for 17th and Maple streets that would turn organic food waste into methane gas.  The plan would include turning the waste from the Heaven Hill distillery into natural gas.

But many California neighborhood residents vehemently opposed the idea of more industrial plants — specifically chemical or gas plants — in the community, saying they have had enough trouble with existing industry.

Besides a slew of health and safety concerns, residents ultimately said they felt putting the plant in the West End was simply unfair.

But Fischer and others helped broker a deal aimed at making the plans more acceptable for residents.

“It’s important to note that this will be a binding agreement,” Fischer said on Thursday to a crowd of Simmons College faculty and staff, West Louisville residents, company representatives and community leaders. “We heard citizens in our last community meeting when they talked of past promises made and broken — and you have my word that won’t be the case here."

According to a city release, the incentives include:

  • The historic Schenley Distillery Building, along with about four acres of adjacent land, will be donated to the community for educational purposes.
  • The $1.5 million gift will benefit Simmons College and Kentucky State University.
  • The companies pledge to invest $3.5 million to create a West Louisville Community Benefits Fund – with $1 million in the first year, and annual contributions of $250,000 over the next 10 years.

Fischer said a group of community leaders from the West Louisville would oversee those funds.

According to the mayor’s office, a foundation would dole out grants “focused on increasing educational attainment, advancing job training, fostering entrepreneurship and economic development and improving healthy living.”

For some, this agreement is a hard pill to swallow.

Metro Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3, has been a leading critic of the biodigester plan and has been notifying residents of the proposal.

Plans for another methane plant at the proposed West Louisville FoodPort development were called off earlier this year after concerns were raised by community members. Woolridge has said she opposes the methane plants because they are too close to homes. She has often suggested the proposed project be moved to a less residential area.

As Fischer announced the deal, Woolridge told the crowd she was “reluctant” to support the accord.

“It sends a message to West Louisville that their concerns are secondary to an almighty dollar,” she said. “It fuels the ongoing belief that backroom deals can buy and elevate leaders.”

STAR BioEnergy attorney Brian Zoeller had been working with the community to find a middle ground since the project was first announced. Woolridge said she decided at some point it would be helpful to make sure the community would get something out of the project — because she felt its approval was inevitable.

“Because we knew pretty much where this is going,” Wooldridge said. “So I said, 'We are working on Plan A, we need to plan B.' Plan B is getting some benefits for this neighborhood.”

During Thursday's announcement, some residents hoisted signs that read "sell out."

Woolridge told the crowd she had not sold out their concerns by getting some benefits for the area.

“I am my own person,” she said. “I am not in debt to anybody.”

West Louisville resident Martina Nichols Kunnecke said she is grateful for Woolridge's work on the issue and understands the situation. But she said she is still opposed to the methane plant in West Louisville.

“None of us — not the mayor, not Kevin Cosby, not me, not Mary — know how this is going to go,” she said.

Kunnecke said she and other activists who have been vocal and involved on this issue were left out of discussions over the deal.

“We said no to backroom deals and all this money being poured in the same old way and the same direction, it’s going to lead nowhere,” she said.

However, Cosby defended the agreement.

“The fact of the matter is: It’s a good deal if you get something out of it,” he said.

Fischer said the companies’ plan will go before a city zoning board two weeks from Friday. He said if it’s approved, construction could start as early as spring 2016.

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