An old medical precept holds that “the dose makes the poison,” meaning anything consumed to excess can be harmful, and also that even a deadly toxin, taken in carefully calculated portions, can be beneficial. Gulp too much pure water and you could drown. Take prescribed portions of a lethal substance that’s been adapted for pharmaceutical purposes and you could cure a disease.
Local residents who’ve sued two distilleries over whiskey warehouse emissions they blame for a fungus that forms on their homes aren’t alleging the unsightly growth threatens their health. However, they do believe it’s damaging their property through prolonged exposure. Like the aroma of cooking mash, the black splotches that accumulate on the outside walls of bourbon warehouses are part of the distilling industry’s venerable image. But while it may look quaint, it’s not so appealing when the moldy coating supposedly generated by ethanol fumes from aging whiskey spreads to neighboring homes.
Three complainants filed suit against Buffalo Trace Distillery on Wilkinson Boulevard and Beam Inc., which operates on Elkhorn Creek off Georgetown Road. People live near both plants.
Historians tell us that distillers were plying their craft on the Buffalo Trace site even before Frankfort was founded as a Virginia town (Kentucky was not yet a state) in 1786. Population of the Leestown community was sparse and Indian attacks were endemic, so the pioneers worried more about survival than the niceties of environmental protection. After the Civil War, the Hermitage Distillery would produce whiskey on the banks of the Kentucky River in South Frankfort, destined to become the town’s most populous single neighborhood. The distillery eventually gave way to residential development when South Frankfort became the site of the new Kentucky Capitol.
City planners reached the conclusion that heavy industry and residential neighborhoods did not comfortably mix. Modern zoning laws keep them separate, to their mutual satisfaction, though some neighborhoods abutting industries persist today. Most are probably better off than eastern Kentucky communities living with the scourge of strip mining in their backyards, but industry-neighborhood conflicts can boil up anywhere.
The whiskey fungus story broke last month when William McMurry joined with other Louisville residents suing over the damages they believe their homes have suffered by being in the vicinity of three liquor producers. Frankfort residents later contacted him for advice and he told State Journal reporter Lauren Hallow he was shocked by the condition of homes he saw here, especially those in the generally well-maintained Maples subdivision near Jim Beam distillery. “The last thing you would expect is for them to look like they’re located near some coal-fired furnace,” he said.
McMurry, who hopes to gain class-action status for the litigation, will host a public meeting to discuss the topic, 6-8 p.m. today at the Capital Plaza Hotel.
He and the local residents emphasized that they aren’t attacking the industry or its products – they just want distilleries and homeowners to coexist more harmoniously.
Both individual property values and business profits are at stake. Tourists are intrigued by the whiskey-making process and its colorful history. But neighbors who soak up the atmosphere every day and night may prefer a “dose” that’s a tad more diluted.