WKYT Investigates | Lexington residents, businesses concerned over potential permit for incinerator

Complaints obtained through an open records request show they have already seen what the impact could be.
WKYT Investigates | Lexington residents, businesses concerned over potential permit for incinerator
Published: Sep. 15, 2022 at 3:48 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - People in several Lexington neighborhoods have mobilized in an effort to prevent a nearby business from getting a permit required to operate an incinerator.

C&R Asphalt and Mulch is applying for a permit from the Kentucky Division for Air Quality in order to operate an air curtain incinerator. The company wants to use it to burn wood waste that cannot be turned into mulch, instead creating a biochar to add to topsoil.

The manufacturer describes the incinerator as a “low-emissions alternative to the open burning of wood waste,” according to C&R’s permit application.

Yet residents in several nearby neighborhoods - led by neighborhood associations for Cardinal Valley and Hamilton Park-Westgate along Versailles Road and Meadowthorpe along Leestown Road - fear the burner could be too much of a nuisance at their homes, not to mention at other businesses, an elementary school and a city park in the area.

“People are pretty alarmed at this,” said Lane Boldman, a board member with the Cardinal Valley Neighborhood Association. Not only has she lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, but environmental advocacy is also not new to her; she serves as executive director of the Kentucky Conservation Committee.

Boldman and other neighbors have passed out flyers asking others to submit public comments to the state in opposition to the permit.

City leaders have also gotten involved. At its August 18 meeting, Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council approved a resolution opposing the permit, submitting public comments to the state saying so, and asking for a public hearing on the issue.

“We just wanted the state to know there’s people in the surrounding community concerned about this type of burning inside New Circle Road, near neighborhoods, near our park,” said 11th District Council Member Jennifer Reynolds, whose district includes several of the concerned neighborhoods, “and that we wanted them to take this seriously when they looked at permitting.”

The council resolution specifically cites concerns at McConnell Springs, which is right next door to C&R’s property and, according to city leaders, hosts more than 65,000 visitors each year for recreation, educational programming and volunteerism efforts.

“[T]he Urban County Council is concerned,” the resolution reads, “that this release of smoke and ash will continue if C&R Asphalt LLC is issued a Title V permit to operate the air curtain incinerator and will have detrimental environmental and public health impacts on McConnell Springs Park and its visitors....”

Workers at C&R have made it clear that they expect the permit to be approved. The business is one of several located off of Old Frankfort Pike in an area zoned I-2 for heavy industrial. And a modeling analysis C&R had performed at the request of state regulators acknowledges that the incinerator is a source of toxic air pollutants (and a dispersion map showing the impact on nearby residential areas shows that neighbors in the concerned areas would deal with slightly higher percentages) but also found that “the total carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic risks for the Lexington facility were well under EPA acceptable risk thresholds.”

But residents in nearby neighborhoods - including Cardinal Valley, which backs up to a buffer zone of trees between it and industrial property - and others who work in the area say the burning would still impact them.

And on multiple occasions, records show, neighbors already have seen, felt and smelled its impact. That is because state inspectors found that C&R operated the incinerator before receiving an air quality permit.

Through an open records request, WKYT Investigates obtained numerous complaints submitted to the state (several of which were initially made to council members) in September and October 2021 and again in March 2022.

Among the complaints:

  • September 21: “Caller reports a mulch business has been open burning causing heavy smoke and covering the vehicles in the city’s parking lot with ashes. This has occurred on 3 days for the past 6 business days.”
  • September 23: “On a daily basis the smoke fills my workplace and the ash covers my personal belongings, including my automobile. I have also heard customers of the business that I work at complain as well.”
  • September 23: “...smoke has engulfed this area making it hard to breathe.... The smoke engulfs the entire McConnell Springs area...”
  • October 5: “The complainant asked if this is legal?”
  • March 8: “The complainant reports heavy smoke at her house today at 3:15 p.m.”

A state inspector dispatched to the site in response to the complaints found the incinerator in use on October 4 and again in a follow-up visit on March 9, according to their reports.

C&R’s owner, Steve Coleman, would not agree to speak with WKYT’s Garrett Wymer on camera, but he did provide the following statement:

In an email, Coleman also provided more comments trying to address concerns, saying that C&R is a respected company that has been a good neighbor for years, encouraging people to do their own research on air burners and the benefits of biochar, and pushing back against what he calls a “false narrative” being spread by some neighbors.

“C&R vehemently denies ever running the Air Curtain Burner after being told to shut down by any federal, state, or local authority,” he writes, describing what he calls apparent “confusion” by the state over what permits C&R would need in order to operate the incinerator.

(That disputes official state reports WKYT Investigates obtained through an open records request that the Division for Air Quality inspector informed C&R on October 4 “that we would be asking the company to apply for a permit with the DAQ.” The follow-up report in March states that C&R mistakenly believed they could begin operating the incinerator again after receiving a solid waste permit, which they did. The incinerator has not been used since then, they said.)

Neighbors hope C&R will find somewhere else to burn.

“I’d like them to take another look at their practices,” said Lane Boldman, the Cardinal Valley Neighborhood Association board member.

She says that she, too, has smelled the smoke from the incinerator.

“Neighbors were certainly pointing out that there was a lot of haze, a lot of odor,” she said.

The neighborhood’s close proximity to an industrial area means that they already have to put up with some operations that impact them. Boldman mentioned a gravel pit in the area sets off a charge every day around 4:30 p.m.

But Boldman says those are only occasional nuisances, and that other companies like those have worked and communicated with the neighborhood associations and others in the area.

Given the smoldering tension ongoing, neighbors say if C&R does not rethink its plans for the incinerator, they hope the state will put out the fire before it starts.

The Kentucky Division for Air Quality is accepting written comments on the issue through September 19. A virtual public hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. September 22.