Compost facility angers residents Stench unbearable, neighbors tell state officials

June 09, 1996|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN STAFF

Furious neighbors of the state's only regional yard waste composting facility have besieged the Maryland Department of the Environment in recent weeks, complaining that resumed operations at the Dorsey yard have brought unbearable stenches.

Residents have called in more than 100 complaints in the past 30 days, prompting state officials to re-evaluate their earlier position of not issuing violation notices while the yard's operator tried to fix odor problems that had led to 14 citations.

After more than two months, "we believe sufficient time has passed," said Quentin Banks, MDE spokesman.

Environmental officials hope to meet this week with Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-public agency that runs the yard, to try to resolve the problems, Banks said.

The yard, financed last summer through a $5.9 million bond issue, serves Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties.

Nearby Lennox Park residents, who say the odor is so fetid that it chokes them, have grown impatient with MES. And as their vTC anger has grown, so have their complaints.

"I think they figured we were a bunch of old hillbillies down by the railroad tracks and we weren't going to say anything. Well, they were wrong," said Don Davis, who lives on the Anne Arundel side of the yard.

The 56-acre facility is in Howard County, just over the Anne Arundel line. Depending on which way the breeze is blowing, residents in both counties have complained about the odor, mostly in the evening. They leave windows closed at night and fear that the heat and haze will make the stench unbearable in the summer.

"If this is any indication of what is going to happen when it gets warm, we're in trouble," Davis said. "It smelled like a pig farm" last week, he said.

The neighborhoods are filled with fliers from activists telling residents how to lodge a complaint and private companies advertising household air purifiers.

The pungent odor aggravates allergies, makes people sick to their stomachs and causes respiratory problems, neighbors say.

Nancy Couch, who lives on the Howard County side, has suffered increasing allergy problems she attributes to the decomposing vegetation. Residents have taken to fleeing their homes, wearing filter masks and stuffing towels under doorways to keep away from the stench.

Their assessment of the yard is directly opposite to that of James Peck, the MES director.

"I think the operation has gone pretty well overall," he said Friday.

Nevertheless, he said, if he had had his way, he would not have put a composting facility 100 yards from homes. MES operates other sites, but they are relatively isolated.

The latest stench is a temporary problem caused by the addition of spring grass clippings and the stirring up of last fall's leaves, Peck said, adding that summer will be better.

Too many excuses

"It's one continuous excuse and story after another. I am tired of it," said Russell Rzemien, who lives on the Anne Arundel side of the facility. He is especially worried about a daughter who has asthma. The concentration of materials in the decomposing yard waste are not unique, but the concentration may be aggravating health problems, he said.

Peck said he is awaiting a cost proposal from an expert at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville for studying the odors produced by the fungus composting creates.

Peck said the problem began when the composting plant was not ready in time for the fall leaf season. Mounds of leaves several stories high trapped odors, which were released as the decomposing leaves were moved into long rows for composting. The yard was run by Browning-Ferris Industries Inc. at the time. MES severed a $425,000-a-year contract with BFI in March and took over operations itself.

When they reopened the facility in April, MES officials said they had taken corrective steps worked out with MDE.

The yard started taking grass clippings then, which Peck said are rank when they arrive. As the bags are opened, the clippings are mixed with last fall's leaves.

Expert's advice

Whether grass clippings should go into the mix at all is debatable.

Peter Strom, an environmental science professor at Cook College of Rutgers University in New Jersey, said no. The co-author of New Jersey's manual on composting said grass clippings need more oxygen than leaves do to decompose and that they just plain smell too much.

When done properly, the composting of leaves alone produces no odor a short distance away. Insufficient oxygen is what makes yard composting smell.

"Grass clippings should not be collected. Grass clippings should be left on the lawn," Mr. Strom said. "That being the case, there should be no need for a grass-composting site."

Peck disagreed, saying the nitrogen that makes the clippings good for the lawn enhances the compost.

"You need the nitrogen to make the process work most effectively, I think," he said.

Anne Arundel officials said they have been assured by MES that the facility seems to be operating smoothly.

But Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, the Democrat who represents that county's side, remains inclined to close the facility, which he said never should have been situated so close to houses. And he wonders whether others would be more responsive to complaints if the homes in the area were worth $400,000 instead of half that.

"This is not something which can continue ad infinitum," he said.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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