Landfill stink: Residents voice odor concerns

PHOTO BY VICKI JOHNSON Workers in trucks and heavy equipment work on a hill at the landfill.

Odor emanating from Sunny Farms Landfill is causing a stink.

Area residents are concerned about the smell and the effect hydrogen sulfide gas may be having on their health, and the company that owns the landfill has begun putting together new measures to control the gas.

Hydrogen sulfide is the byproduct of the decomposition of construction materials, which is the main waste product that goes into the landfill. Specifically, the company said the gypsum in wall board gives off the gas as it decomposes, which is similar to the smell of rotten eggs.

Because of the ongoing issue, a group of residents – the Greater Fostoria Environmental Coalition – is making its concerns known to public officials.

At its December meeting, the Seneca County General Health District health board was to vote on renewing the operating license of Sunny Farms Landfill, a Tunnel Hill Partner, 12500 W. CR 18, Fostoria.

However, at least 80 residents crowded the meeting room, spilling into the hallway, to voice their opposition to renewing the license, said Tim Wasserman, director of Ottawa Sandusky Seneca Joint Solid Waste District.

Wasserman said he attended the meeting because the OSS district works with the health department, providing funds for landfill inspections. He said OSS has no regulatory authority, but receives funding based on the waste that goes into the landfill.

Wasserman said Jim Young, the health board chairman, tried to give everybody an opportunity to speak about their concerns.

“They were even in the hallway,” Wasserman said. “He just realized this wasn’t the best way to accomplish what they wanted to do.”

The vote was postponed.

The health department has scheduled a public meeting for 6 p.m. Jan. 30 at Fostoria High School to collect input from the public and other agencies.

“The odor has been significantly worse the last few months,” Wasserman said. “We have gotten calls. I think the people are frustrated that they’re not getting answers and that they haven’t been heard.”

He said the OSS office refers calls to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s odor hotline.

“We have no regulatory authority,” Wasserman said. “We provide funding to the Seneca County Health Department for inspection of the facility as part of the allowable use of our money.”

He said funding me meant to provide inspection and enforcement to ensure the facility is following the rules. The health department and Ohio EPA work together to provide inspections.

“Basically, our only role is a good part of our funding comes from the tipping fees that are paid by the facility,” he said.

However, Wasserman said there’s an ongoing issue between OSS and the company regarding classification of materials going into the landfill.

“There have been issues since 2004 or 2005 and a consent order in 2008,” he said.

The company is required to take photos of each load of material that arrives to determine if it’s solid waste or construction materials. Wasserman said the two classifications have different requirements.

“We’ve lost a significant amount of revenue because of it to the point where it’s having a significant effect on our budget,” Wasserman said.

He said the matter has not been finalized by Ohio EPA.

“In the meantime, we disagree with how they’re classifying, but EPA has never finalized the dispute resolution process,” he said.

Wasserman said there is new management at the landfill, and he hopes the issue will be resolved.

Back to the odor issue, Wasserman said he gives the health department credit for putting together the meeting.

“The meeting will be a good opportunity to provide everyone with the facts so there isn’t this doubt about what’s going on,” he said. “If everybody’s there, they can get answers to their questions.”

The residents’ perspective

The six members of the Greater Fostoria Environmental Coalition have taken on the task of getting answers for everyone who suffers from the hydrogen sulfide smell, said Nate Heiser, one of the members.

He said the other members are Doug Lear, Myra Spires, Lori Wolph, Nick VanGiesen and Nick Buchanan.

Heiser said the group discovered the health board was going to vote on license renewal and decided to attend the meeting.

“We didn’t want a renewal without knowing things were going to be corrected,” Lear said.

“You can smell the issue,” Heiser said. “We needed to make sure our voices were being heard.”

“What it came down to is a lot of us knew there were certain corrections that were supposed to be made in the past,” Lear said. “We want our questions answered from Seneca County Health Department, Ohio EPA and so on, and that it’s been extremely hard to get these questions answered.”

It’s not only the odor that is causing concern, Heiser said.

“Two or three years ago it was a nuisance once in a while,” he said. “Now it’s affecting our quality of life.”

Heiser and Lear said the problem has gotten worse during the past year. They have suffered headaches, burning eyes and sore throats when the odor is at its worst, and they have received reports from many other people who say they have been physically affected in similar ways.

They said it’s not only Fostoria that’s affected. People in Arcadia, Bascom and many other areas have been commenting on the group’s Facebook page – Sunny Farms Landfill Complaint Group.

Because of past violations by the landfill company, Lear said the group is concerned about the environmental impact the landfill is having on soil and water as well as air quality.

“We want multiple testing done,” Lear said. “Water, soil and sediment, air, not just wells as it’s been in the past.

He said toxins already could be in topsoil and surface water and it could take many years to get into the ground water.

At the Jan. 30 meeting, Heiser said the group wants to “do a question and answer session” with landfill representatives, Ohio EPA, the health department, Seneca County commissioners and Fostoria administrators.

“We’re going to ask the tough questions,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

In the interim, the coalition is attending public meetings such as the county commissioners, Fostoria city council and township trustees.

“We had a meeting with (Rep.) Bill Reineke (Wednesday),” Heiser said. “He said he’s going to make this his No. 1 issue.”

The company’s perspective

“We are working to address concerns about odors at Sunny Farms,” said Matt Neeley, vice president of operations for Tunnel Hill. He said he’s been working for Tunnel Hill since February 2018, and has worked in the waste industry for 35 years.

“We recognized several months ago that we needed to improve our gas collection and treatment system,” Neeley said. “We started a process where we went out and took a look at what technologies were available.”

Neeley said gases are formed by decomposing waste material, and the gypsum in wallboard breaks down into hydrogen sulfide.

“It’s detectable in really minute quantities,” he said.

A lot of factors affect hydrogen sulfide odor, he said, such as wind direction, temperature, atmospheric conditions.

“We actually ordered the system back in October,” he said. “It’s being installed onsite currently. We turned on the first phase of it the first week in January, and we are going to expand that system.”

Neeley said it’s too soon to tell if the system is working better.

“It’s been a week,” he said. “It’s hard to tell.”

Ben Nutter, regional sales manager, said he has worked for the company since 2013.

He said past gas control was a system that burned off gas with flares.

“As the company created a new cell, they were producing a lot more gas and started putting a plan in place,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we got the right system. The pieces are coming together.”

In the new system, Neeley said the company drills wells into the landfill and draws gases into vertical and horizontal collectors.

“And then we have a network of pipes that are connected to the extraction devices,” he said. “So we are able to suck the gases out of the landfill and create negative pressure.”

In addition to the new, more sophisticated, system which pipes gas to the flares, Neeley said the company is placing a geomembrane cover over 20 acres of the facility this spring or summer.

He said the company plans to present the plan to Ohio EPA next week, and he’s confident it will be approved.

Later this year, he said more well and collectors are to be added to more areas of the landfill.

“That work is also going to be started in the first quarter and we’ll be doing that continuously through fall,” he said.

“The long-term fix is that we are improving our gas collection system, adding in a hydrogen sulfide treatment system, and we think the addition of these systems will result in improved control of natural gasses at the site,” Neeley said.

“We’re not oblivious,” Nutter said. “We not only monitor our gas, but we have monitoring wells for ground water.”

He said monitored information is provided to the health department and EPA.

“We are working hard to address the community concerns about odors at Sunny Farms and we regularly check the odors in the landfill and outside of the landfill every day,” Neeley said. “When we receive a complaint, we go out and investigate to find out where the odor is and if it’s coming from the landfill. If we find the source, we’ll maximize our gas collection system and provide additional cover or take whatever measure we can at the site.”

“We’re investing a lot of resources to make sure that happens,” Nutter said. “In the years since I’ve worked here, this new management team is the most aggressive we’ve had. They’re not going to stop, and will continue to put resources toward this issue.”