Residents demand answers to smell from Northern Oaks

Erich T. Doerr | Review Correspondent

While the Clare County Board of Commissioners hadn’t heard from residents about the nighttime odor on the south side of town since October that doesn’t mean the issue went away.

At Wednesday’s board meeting the residents were back again trying to get the word out about the smell. Harrison resident Ray Elliott was again leading the campaign but accompanied by nine additional residents concerned deeply about the issue who Elliott said contacted him.

“What will it take to get you to help,” Elliot said. “These are only a quarter of the people affected.”

The odor is suspected by residents to originate at the Northern Oaks landfill facility owned by Waste Management. The issue has been an ongoing one as Elliott said residents have been dealing with it for 6 years and the smell has been drifting as far as 5 miles away from the landfill of late over an area that includes schools and daycare centers.

“I want fresh air,” Elliott said claiming someone had recently offered him $50,000 to quiet down about the issue. “It’s like liquid, it’s the strongest most obnoxious smell.”

The residents said the intensity of the smell has been especially bad of late with side effects such as grass not growing right or windows being impossible to open due to it. The neighbors encouraged getting the federal authorities such as Environmental Protection Agency involved.

“It’s terrible,” Harrison truck driver Richard Powell said. “(The odor) smelled almost like propane. It burns your nostrils.”

Powell described the odor as smog-like in scent but colorless. He added whatever it is the odor leaves a layer of film on cars afterwards.

Despite the protests the board was able to take little action. Acting board chairperson Jack Kleinhardt said the board in no way doubted the serious nature of the issue but added the actions the residents wanted, such as closing the landfill, were not doable with the board’s authority.

“It’s way over my head for what we can do,” Kleinhardt said.

According to the commissioners the board’s best option would be to stage a special public hearing involving the residents, Waste Management and environmental officials. The meeting would likely take place at night to allow everyone to attend. WM district manager Fred Sawyers and representatives of the DEQ previously spoke to the board in September at a meeting not attended by the concerned residents.

The residents were not the only ones aware of the odor as both Commissioner Leonard Strouse and Clare County Clever reporter Genine Hopkins both confirmed they too have smelled it. Hopkins described the odor as “like a bunch of cow poop” and added adding Mid Michigan Community College instructor Bill Matthews has also been looking into the issue.

“I know something is there,” Strouse said. “No one is saying you are lying.”

The issue takes place mostly in Hayes Township leading commissioners to ask the group why they took the issue to the county level instead of there. Elliott responded by saying he did attend the township’s meetings to state the issue and it was no help. He added he is not looking to sue anyone regarding the issue as he just wants the problem fixed.

The talk of the odor continued at the end of the meeting without the protestors following both the board’s normal actions and the Committee of the Whole meeting. After a single passing reference to ‘where’s Erin Brockovich when you need her’ the discussion immediately got serious.

“That’s unfair to make them live this way,” Kleinhardt said. “I feel for them but I don’t have a clue what to do.”

Kleinhardt recalled the fierce arguments that took place before the landfill was put in and added that if they had seen the recurring fights it has now lead to coming it may not have been built at all. When he asked what the board’s legal rights on the issue are Commissioner Lynn Grim added they would need to look at their contract. The discussion continued, involving future commissioner Rick LaBoda as well, by talking about how the landfill was originally contracted to be filled in about 10 or 20 years but due to changes in the industry and its technology Grim said it could now be there for 40 years of operation or more. Clare County Administrator Tracy Byard added the site recently passed an inspection from the DEQ with what Sawyers said in an email to the county was high praise.

Trying to determine if there was any action the board could take on the issue the commissioners suggested one possibility might be hiring a person to nightly go out and check the air in the area around the landfill to at least gather some data. It was mentioned that a specialized sniffing device to detect the odor, possibly caused by hydrogen sulfide (H2S ) but never pinned down, could cost about $150 but the actual price was unknown.