Damage from Bourbon & Beyond: Part of Champions Park closed by threat of hazardous ash

A portion of Champions Park has been closed as the city tests for hazardous ash that RVs and other vehicles may have unearthed while driving in the mud at the Bourbon & Beyond festival.

The potential rupture of a former landfill beneath Champions has caused neighbors and an environmental advocate to question whether such festivals and events should be allowed at the park in the future.

Tom FitzGerald, director of the nonprofit, environmental advocacy group Kentucky Resources Council, said the city must better manage the park so the clay cap and grass above the landfill are not damaged, potentially exposing concert-goers and others to toxic materials.

“So, you don’t drag RVs in there, and you don’t allow folks to camp and put, you know, camping spikes into the ground. You don’t do anything other than surface actives that are not going to present any possibility of damaging the integrity of the cap,” FitzGerald said in an interview.

Until the testing is complete, it is not clear whether the cap was breached, a state official said.

Neither the city nor Danny Wimmer Presents, the company that hosts Bourbon & Beyond and other music festivals at Champions Park, would comment on the possibility of moving the events, or changing the location of the campsite.

The production company declined to answer questions, except to say: “Danny Wimmer Presents is focused on clean-up and refunds and is not available for comment at this time.”

Mayor Greg Fischer’s spokesperson, Jean Porter, acknowledged concerns about the landfill, and she said the city and Danny Wimmer Presents were committed to properly restoring the festival grounds. 

“We are aware that concerns have been raised about the landfill cap,” Porter said in an emailed statement. She did not answer further questions. 

Danny Wimmer Presents announced in January it had signed a contract with the city to host events at Champions Park for the next decade, in exchange, committing to spending $500,000 on improvements to the park, including three drinking water fill stations, according to a press release from the company announcing the deal. WFPL has also reported that Danny Wimmer Presents’ rent is $1.

The Bourbon & Beyond music festival was canceled more than a week ago, after its first day on Saturday, because heavy rain made the venue unsafe. Its next-weekend, sister festival, Louder than Life, was canceled not long after. FitzGerald said he complained about the conditions of the grounds to the state after festival-goers told him about deplorable conditions on the site.

The incinerator ash at Champions Park was buried in a part that used to be the Edith Avenue Landfill.

A spokesperson for the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, John Mura, said city officials agreed Thursday to conduct the testing. It’s not clear yet whether the ash has been disturbed, although Mura said the ruts left by vehicles were deep. While there hasn’t been testing since the landfill was capped with clay, Mura said, it’s likely the ash is still hazardous.

If a clay cap over the landfill has been compromised, the city would need to take the ash to a hazardous waste dump, Mura said. For now, part of Champions is closed, and workers who need to use the site are required to wear disposable foot coverings as a precaution, he said. 

In 1991, the year the landfill closed, runoff sediment from the ash tested positive for lead at levels the Environmental Protection Agency considers hazardous, according to state inspection documents provided to LEO by FitzGerald. The ash was capped with clay, a layer of soil and grass to keep it contained. In 1997, the city committed to replacing the “vegetative cover” over the landfill if wear patterns emerged, according to a permit modification that the city requested in order to turn the area into soccer fields. Mura said that, today, the agreement has been “overtaken by current events,” but that the city and the state are working on crafting another one addressing Louisville’s environmental duties toward the former landfill.

The city will also hire an environmental firm to assess the park’s landfill cover, Mura said. Once completed, he said, the state will likely ask the city to restore the site to its original condition.

The promoter also is scheduled to host the Hometown Rising country music festival at Champions Park next year.

Ted Shlechter and his wife Rae Shephard-Shlechter, who live next to Champions Park, have been upset by the noise from such festivals, which they said “shakes” their house. A buffer of trees , River Road and an interstate separate them from Champions Park.

Now, with the possibility of a disturbed landfill, they have more to worry about.

“It’s frightening,” said Shephard-Shlechter. 

Shlechter wondered why Danny Wimmer Presents cannot host its festivals at a different location.

Danny Hayes, the CEO of Danny Wimmer Presents, told WFPL earlier this month that he and Wimmer scoured Louisville for possible concert spots before bringing Louder than Life to Louisville, but they found only Champions Park was suitable. After Louder than Life was canceled this year, Wimmer said it would have been logistically impossible to hold the event at another location or to spread it out across different venues. 

After the festival cancellations, Hayes held a news conference. 

“We are so committed to Champions Park,” he said. “It is just such an incredible property.”