Something may smell in Roxbury, but state says it’s not the landfill

ROXBURY — The state continues to hear complaints of foul smells in Roxbury, but officials say the Fenimore landfill isn’t to blame.

For the last few months, the state-installed cap on the landfill has been in place — meant to prevent emissions of hydrogen sulfide that started spreading rotten egg-like smells for miles throughout Roxbury in late 2012.

The gas releases and smells — which many residents blamed for making them or their children sick — continued until well after the state took over the landfill in the summer of 2013, but dropped off significantly after it installed a gas collection and burnoff system. The cap, though opposed by some residents who wanted to see material causing the smells removed from the landfill entirely, is meant as the state’s permanent solution to the odors.

“We’re getting reports of garbage smells, sewage, sometimes,” Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said. “We’ve been checking out the landfill closely, and our investigators are looking around, and the landfill is not the problem.”

But several residents say they’re still picking up odors they attribute to the landfill. In an email to DEP official Ed Putnam — also discussing concerns over leachate and other environmental impacts — resident Aaron Markworth said he made a gas odor complaint to the DEP on Sunday night “due to to the hydrogen sulfide smell and other more pungent and burning odors.”

“It entered my car (through) the air conditioner system at the intersection of Mountain and Emmans in Ledgewood,” Markworth wrote in the email, which he CC’d to NJ Advance Media.

He also said he knew of other residents who made complaints Monday, and he knew of some who had “temporarily moved to other communities to escape the constant smell in their Roxbury residence. ”

“How do you explain the unplanned recurrence of the H2S odors along with the new pungent burning smells? This is not the smell of sewage or residential garbage either,” he wrote. “I and others suspect it could be leachate runoff smell due to the rising temperatures and snow melt, but gasses from the landfill are making their way downhill in some form.”

Putnam had told Markworth in an earlier email the cap in place includes an impermeable liner that keeps hydrogen sulfide from escaping, and keeps rainwater from entering the material that causes it. Putnam attributed any leachate issues to older material that’s been in place for decades, and not the recently imported construction debris blamed for causing the hydrogen sulfide.

But the DEP has continued to take odor complaints from people in Roxbury — some describing the rotten egg-like smells typically attributed to the landfill, some describing other odors. About 40 odor complaints been filed since the start of February. The state’s Data Miner doesn’t specify where in town people calling with complaints are.

In a complaint filed today, a caller said there was a strong rotten egg-like odor in the area. At least two callers Wednesday said the same about rotten eggs — multiple other complaints don’t specify the type of smell.

Some recent complaints also talk about odors of garbage or sewage.

Hajna said there are noxious odors in any community — often transient problems, and not attributable to the landfill. Some could be from sewage, stormwater, stagnant water, garbage trucks or myriad other causes, he said.

“There’s odors in communities all the time,” he said.

In his letter to Markworth, Putnam suggested slightly elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide picked up on monitors near the Fenimore landfill might be due to combustion byproducts from heating systems.

Some amount of hydrogen sulfide gas can be found anywhere — though only the most sensitive people will detect it at low levels of 1 or 2 parts per billion. Monitors int he area have often showed levels of 8 ppb or above, which is enough to be smelled by many people.

Tuesday, monitors near Jefferson School picked up extremely high levels of hydrogen sulfide — 1,100 parts per billion, ultimately triggering alerts sent home to parents. Levels that high would be enough to make most people feel ill.

But Hajna said a subsequent investigation with handheld monitors found there wasn’t any large amount of gas coming from the landfill. Parents were told in an alert sent electronically that high readings were detected, but determined to be an anomaly. A call to schools Superintendent Patrick Tierney has not yet been returned.

Throughout the winter, monitors near the landfill have picked up other extremely elevated hydrogen sulfide levels — but officials have said those readings appeared to be mechanical error. Emilcott Technologies, the firm responsible for monitors, said recently the readings appeared to be primarily related to electronically interference. It noted the massive spikes would drop off almost immediately.

Hajna said while the DEP does not believe the landfill is continuing to produce strong smells, officials take reports of odors seriously and investigate them.

Several residents in a Facebook group about Fenimore Landfill issues have been posting recently that they’re encountering smells.

Earlier today, RuthAnn Miller-Flint said it “stinks” on Alward Lane, and smells are making her feel sick. On March 7, Shannon O’Hara Caccavella — whose home is immediately adjacent to the landfill and who has been an outspoken critic of the government response to issues there — wrote that she “woke up again with the H2s in my home and a huge headache… I got my case number!” James J Cogan wrote in response the smell was “very thick in the air’ around 4:30 a.m.

Smells became a problem at the landfill several months after developer Strategic Environmental Partners began a state-approved project to cap the long-abandoned landfill, which was covered with dirt and natural growth in the decades after it closed.

In November of 2012, residents began making odor complaints, later traced to construction debris imported as part of SEP’s plan to cap the site and install a solar facility. The state took over the site in June of 2013, blaming SEP for not keeping odors under control and for not putting funds into a required escrow account.

SEP, in turn, says the DEP stifled efforts that would have controlled the smells, and says they only became a problem because debris from superstorm Sandy destruction was sent to the landfill by state-approved recycling centers drenched and untested. The state and developer continue to fight oevr those and related issues in court.
Louis C. Hochman may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @LouisCHochman. Find on Facebook.

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