Rotten eggs, rotten trash, and sewage: These are the smells that some Moretown residents claim they smell every day wafting from the Moretown Landfill, and that have gotten much worse this year. They are asking the landfill to get these odors under control.
“I don’t think that we’re asking you to get rid of odor,” said Martha Douglass, spokesperson for Citizens for Landfill Environmental Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR), an activist group formed by neighbors of the landfill. Douglass said they were asking the landfill to eliminate off-site odors, not all odors.
Douglass and other residents spoke up during a public hearing of the Moretown Development Review Board last week. The Development Review Board is reviewing the landfill’s application to expand into a fourth cell. If it does not expand, it will be full sometime next year. There are only two commercially operated landfills in Vermont.
There are four sources of landfill odors: landfill gas, trash, leachate (the juice that leaks out the bottom of a landfill), and sewage sludge.
Landfill gas is produced as waste decomposes, and it can leak out of the surface of the landfill. According to professional engineer Brian Beaudoin, with Sanborn, Head, and Associates, a firm contracted by the landfill, the gas is a mixture of methane, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulfide. The proportions vary with the composition of the waste.
Hydrogen sulfide is typically the smelliest gas in the mixture, has a rotten egg smell, and is heavier than air, so it settles in valleys. It is a byproduct of sheetrock decomposition. Beaudoin said that Moretown Landfill doesn’t take in much sheetrock. A resident said last year the landfill took in tons of construction debris following Tropical Storm Irene. She wondered if that is why odors increased so dramatically this year.
The only gas Moretown Landfill monitors at the surface of the landfill is methane because it comprises the largest proportion of the gas mixture — but methane doesn’t smell. The landfill monitors methane at least monthly. If they find methane concentrations greater than 50 parts per million, they may add earth to cover the garbage or repair gas wells.
Moretown Landfill vacuums landfill gas out of the active cells through a series of horizontal and vertical pipes. They convert two-thirds of it to electricity, which they sell to Pennsylvania Power and Light. The other third is burned on site, which converts the smelliest gases into less smelly gases.
Beaudoin admitted during the hearing, “Some of the gas is getting through, and some of that is potentially what is causing the odors here.”
Last year, in response to a Notice of Alleged Violation from the state, Moretown Landfill contracted the firm Weston & Sampson to set up an odor complaint hotline. Since August 2011, Weston & Sampson employees have responded to over 180 phone and email complaints.
When a complaint is received, a Weston & Sampson technician is paged. Within an average of 20 minutes, the technician visits the site where the complaint was lodged and assesses the strength and nature of the smells using a standardized scale. Then they visit the landfill, work with landfill officials to identify a discrete source, and make recommendations for reducing odors.
Tom Badowski, the landfill’s general manager, said looking at the number of complaints alone is somewhat misleading because multiple complaints may be made in response to a single odor-producing event.
But Erik Titrud, a member of the Development Review Board, pointed out that if there are eight complaints about a single event, that means eight families have been negatively affected.
To deal with leachate as a source of odor, the landfill pumps it out of the bottom of the active plastic-lined cells, stores it temporarily on site, and then trucks it to a sewage treatment plant.
Moretown Landfill addresses other sources of odor, like trash and sewage sludge, by spraying chemical odor neutralizers onto the trash or sludge as it is being offloaded. Then they immediately cover the material with wood chips. At the end of every day, the working face of the landfill is covered with earth.
As the trash in cell three, the active cell, gets higher, wind carries the smells farther with fewer hills to interrupt it. Badowski suggested that there will actually be fewer odors if the landfill expands into cell four because the working face will be lower.
Douglass was quick to point out that cell four will eventually be 80 feet higher than cell three, and the odor issues will begin all over again.
“We’ve got odors every day. While you’ve got all this technology, it’s not working,” said Moretown resident Susan Nadeau, who lives an eighth of a mile away. “Either you can’t make it work or you won’t make it work, that’s the only answer.”
One resident called the gap between the engineers’ assurances and the neighbors’ experiences a “normative versus objective gulf.”