The odor of trouble

September 13, 2012


Erich T. Doerr | Review Correspondent

Something stinks in Harrison and it has local residents in an uproar.

Over the last few years residents on the south side of town have complained of an odor that moves in during overnight hours. The leader of the residents is Ray Elliott who spoke to the Clare County Board of Commissioners last week about the odor.

“It’ll burn your eyes and hurt your throat,” Elliott said. “It’ll gag you.”

Elliott said the smell normally moves in at about 2:30 a.m. and is at its worst until about 3 a.m. but can sometimes linger as late as 10 a.m. Elliott said the invisible odor is not a nightly event but can happen on as many as 15 days a month and it is hurting property values in the area.

According to Elliott he and the other residents say the source of the odor is the Northern Oaks Recycling and Disposal Facility, a landfill located near their homes. Opened in 1992 by Waste Management the Northern Oaks landfill sits on 330 acres of property with 75.1 acres currently allowed to be used for the disposal of solid waste.

Fred Sawyers is WM’s district manager for the area including the Northern Oaks facility and said he is aware of the complaints nut does not believe they are the source. He said Northern Oaks is a Type 2 landfill that only accepts municipal solid wastes such as residential and commercial waste with some non-hazardous industrial wastes.

“We’re comfortable with our operations,” Sawyers said, noting that the facility collects wastes primarily from Clare County with 80 percent of its wastes coming from it and the surrounding area. “We’re a small facility.”

While the odor seems to arrive at the same time Sawyers confirmed there is no activity at the landfill causing it at 2:30 a.m. He said the facility is only permitted to be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. but on-site activity usually runs only from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. with all wastes received spread out using heavy machinery and covered with a new layer of soil each day. He added almost everyone having leaves the property, which has passed several Department of Environmental Quality inspections of late, by 4:30 p.m.

Sawyers said the only overnight activity at the site comes from an unmanned gas-to-energy facility running mostly on methane produced by the wastes’ breakdown. He added the only time anyone is there after hours would be if the gas-to-energy facility acted up and required maintence but he noted the energy facility is operating on its own 97 percent of the time.

The issue between Elliott, who lives one mile from the landfill, and WM is not a new one. The two parties previously wound up in court on the odor issue back in 2009 with WM winning a jury judgment. As the issue continued Elliott said he has called up both the Environmental Protection Agency and the DEQ about it as well as the local police and fire departments.

Among those working on the issue for the DEQ is Kathy Brewer, an environmental quality analyst since 1992. Brewer works on air quality issues and has been to the Northern Oaks site six times since last fall. She said she inspected the site in May and the DEQ’s resource management branch did another inspection on August 15. Brewer is quick to note the landfill is not the only possible source of the odors as the area also includes the Harrison city’s compost area, a waste water sewage lagoon’s pumping station and a sawmill. The area between the landfill and the compost and sewage facilities is low lying which Brewer said may contribute to the odor problem.

“All these things have different odor characteristics,” Brewer said. “It’s very understandable they would associate any foul odor with the landfill but it’s difficult to identify where those odors are coming from… It’s a spot where it has a quiet atmosphere. There are activities in the area that would build up odors.”

The DEQ’s studies have found some results. According to Brewer they have twice been able to find odors associated with landfill gas and odors associated with the compost site once. She added the city of Harrison’s Department of Public Works has also located odors associated with the sewage pumping station.

Brewer said the odor surveys were conducted at various times with some as early as 5 a.m. She said the main goal was to take the surveys about a hour before sunrise because of climatic conditions, that is the most probable time for finding an odor if one is released as it would hang low with any fog.

“It’ll cool as it comes down and clings to the ground,” Brewer said. “Once the sun comes up all the material starts to dissipate.”

Elliott disagrees with the idea that it is more than one source and said that he and at least six others all believe the smell is coming from the landfill.

“They know what they smell,” Elliott said, noting neither he nor those living closer to them have ever smelled the lumber yard, sewage pond or compost pile.

According to Elliott to those affected the odor is not just an overnight pain, he and others believe that it is a legitimate health risk. He added he has a form of cancer and his wife has a skin disease that he attributes to after affects from the landfill.

“It’s killing me,” Elliott said, adding that after living at his property for 35 years he is thinking about moving to escape the smell.

Whatever the cause of the odor its lingering nature may be caused by a natural event known as a thermal inversion. In an inversion atmosphere pressure somewhat reverses with hotter air that would normally be down by the ground raising upward, trapping in a cooler substances like fog lower to the ground.

“They are usually associated with that when you get odor cases,” Brewer said. “It will aggravate everything, it allows the conditions for something to concentrate more in one area.”

While Elliott pleaded his case to the Clare County Board the board was unable to take action with members saying they do not have the authority to issue sniffer devices to the area. Board chairman Don David encouraged the group to become more organized and call their senator about the issue.


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