Bourbon County recycling center is ‘righting a wrong’ for a predominantly Black neighborhood

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

PARIS — When David Downey retired from the Navy in 1968 after serving in three wars, he came back to where he grew up, a home on the west side of Paris, Kentucky. But three years before he returned, a trash incinerator had been placed in his neighborhood, too. 

“The stench from it was ridiculous,” Downey, 97, said Monday. “You’re sitting in the kitchen trying to eat stuff, and all the stench is coming in — whether you had your windows up or down — the stench is coming in, and you’re eating supper. And that’s not a good thing.” 

The incinerator burned the community’s trash, and to some residents it was obvious why it was put in the city’s predominantly Black neighborhood.

Jeaneanne Gettle, wearing a black shirt, helps David Downey, wearing a red shirt and red hat, out of his chair.
EPA Region 4 acting administrator Jeaneanne Gettle (right) helps veteran David Downey (left) out of his chair at the ceremony. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

City officials must have thought that “those people were not going to complain, or ask questions, or had the power to do anything about it or the money to get lawyers to stop it,” said Vanessa Logan, 74, president of the Paris Westside Neighborhood Association, who remembers when the site used to have a baseball field where men would play on the weekends, and where she would play as a kid visiting family. 

Eventually the city stopped burning its trash, turning the site into a waste transfer station, where garbage was dumped before being sent elsewhere. Residents still wanted it gone, with noisy garbage trucks rumbling back and forth through the neighborhood. 

“The land was just taken away from Black people,” Logan said. “A transfer station was put there, and they had no say so. They couldn’t say yes or no. So this is righting a wrong.” 

On Monday, they came a step closer to getting their wish as local, state and federal governments including state lawmakers, the regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator and Gov. Andy Beshear came together to break ground on a community recycling center — far from their residential neighborhood.

Bourbon County Judge-Executive Mike Williams, motioning to Downey and other veterans from the Westside neighborhood, said they “served their country honorably” even if they weren’t appreciated in the past. 

“Hopefully today they’ll feel appreciated, because this community is going to do something about social injustice that has been directed at them and their friends and family,” Williams said. 

Even with the community support to move the city’s dump, it took years of planning and lobbying going back to late 2019 to secure the land and finances for the new recycling center. 

The Bourbon County Fiscal Court voted to lease the land to the city for the new center. Beshear awarded a $2 million grant for the project in 2022. The Kentucky legislature this year allocated an additional $1.5 million. And Bill Alverson, a retired banker who has advocated for the project for years, made plenty of calls to lawmakers and other decision makers. 

“If I get in, I’m all in,” Alverson said. “Everybody had a little something to offer, and that’s what I had to offer. And I probably called some people two or three times about things.” 

Alverson said the existing dump will remain in the neighborhood until the new recycling center off of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is completed. But he said the Environmental Protection Agency has also been a big help with getting the process started to remediate the existing dump, which is planned to be turned into green space. 

Veterans, including David Downey (right), listen to the speakers at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new recycling center. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer).

EPA Region 4 acting administrator Jeaneanne Gettle said the federal agency has started a preliminary assessment to allow the local community to access funding to redevelop the site through the EPA’s Brownfields program. 

“Communities deserve to have green space,” Gettle said to the crowd. “We look at it through that lens of environmental justice. Whatever you call it, whatever it is for you, we want you to have the resources that we now have available.” 

For Downey, the dump in his neighborhood was a “wrong in the beginning” that was turned right. 

The one constant the veteran sees is change. 

“Changes are made for the better,” Downey said. “As time goes on things change, and it’s going to be a change here again. I may not be here to see it, but there will be a change.” 

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