Odor source debated

By Erich T. Doerr | Review Correspondent

At the last Clare County Board of Commissioners meeting local residents raised a lot of concerns about an odor possibly coming from the Northern Oaks landfill facility on the southern end of Harrison controlled by Waste Management.

“It didn’t appear to be frivolous or anything they took lightly,” board president Donald David said of the previous complaints.

The concerns have not lightened up and the smell has also continued. At Wednesday’s board meeting a public hearing was held on the issue starting at about 9:15 a.m. The hearing included leadership from Northern Oaks and members of the Department of Environmental Quality. Fred Sawyers, WM’s district manager for the area including the Northern Oaks facility, was the first to speak during the hearing.

“We are working to address those,” Sawyers said. “We welcome comments and concerns.”

Sawyers said Northern Oaks is working on their end to see if they can remedy the issue and they are communicating with their management about it. He followed by inviting the board out to visit and tour the facility at anytime.

While the source of the odor has not been pegged down, the southern side of Harrison also includes the city’s compost site and a sewage treatment pond, Sayers confirmed that an odor from the landfill could happen and they have opened their own investigation with third-party auditors into the issue. He added they are also attempting to improve systems at the site.

Sawyers said the landfill is able to capture 80 to 90 percent of the gases it gives off, noting collecting all 100 percent is impossible even with the soil cover added daily, with most going to an unmanned gas-to-energy generator where it is burned off by a flare in the process. He added the generator is operational 97 percent of the time and it does not become a vent on the rare occasions when its flare is off.

Also attending the meeting were three members of the DEQ including air quality environmental quality analyst Kathy Brewer, based in Bay City, and John Ozoga, an official from the Gaylord who has been assigned to oversee the site for the last two years amongst others in 42 Michigan counties.

Ozoga said it is his duty to keep track of the site and issue permits for it to operate. He also oversees the liner’s construction. He noted while the DEQ has previous identified odors from the landfill in the surrounding area none of them were found to be violations.

“They are in compliance,” Ozoga said of Northern Oaks.

Brewer added the state regularly inspects its landfills including their records, equipment and the air quality of the surrounding area. She noted she is unable to respond to calls about the odor before it usually dissipates because of travel time from her Bay City office to Harrison.

“They test for volatile organic compounds,” Brewer said of the air quality tests. “We’re concerned about ozone.”

One idea to solve the issue that was largely debunked during the hearing was placing ‘sniffer’ devices to find the odor. Both the DEQ and Sawyers confirmed no such all-purpose device exists but there are instruments for measuring specific compounds.

“I haven’t been able to identify the compound to monitor for,” Brewer said.

Possible causes of the odor given its described symptoms including burning eyes and sore throats were discussed during the meeting. Sawyers mentioned that most landfill gas, naturally given off by decomposition, is about 60 percent methane with the rest mostly carbon dioxide and some sulfur dioxide occasionally picked up. Despite this one suspect mentioned for the possible odor at the hearing was hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

According to the DEQ hydrogen sulfide could be produced by the breakdown of drywall construction wastes or possibly oil well wastes. The landfill does handle some oil well wastes as part of its storage of non-hazardous industrial wastes but the vast majority of its contents are residential or commercial wastes and the DEQ noted drywall is the more likely source for releases of H2S. While there are monitors for it they noted that it would not likely be detected unless at a serious level, they used the example of what occurred in New Orleans in 2005 due to rotting drywall damaged caused by Hurricane Katrina. The exact identity of the odor and its source remain unknown at this time.

The board took action on the issue later in the meeting by appointing board member Jim Gelios as its representative to the Northern Oaks Solid Waste Committee with board member Leonard Strouse to act as an alternate. The motion was made by made by board member Jerome Burger and seconded by Jack Kleinhardt with all voting to approve the choices. The issue was brought up during the hearing before it was voted on.

“We would welcome that,” Sawyers said of the decision.