The smell of turkey wasn’t the only thing in the air Thanksgiving morning in Kim Bustos’s University City neighborhood. Bustos called the city at 7:30 a.m. to report a really bad smell coming out of Miramar Landfill. Bustos moved into the neighborhood seven months ago (about three miles downwind of the landfill, when the wind is out of the east). She said there have been four to five times over the past few months when the odor has been overwhelming. Bustos wonders if it has something to do with her husband’s worsening sinus problems.
Bustos isn’t alone — hundreds of complaints were lodged neighbor-to-neighbor, on social media, and to the city and county in 2016. One resident described the odor by saying, “It smells like dead animals.”
Lori Saldaña, 2016 mayoral candidate and a Clairemont resident, has also complained about the landfill, most recently in early December 2016. Saldaña smelled the odor the day after Thanksgiving while driving east on Highway 52, between 805 and Convoy Street. “I often smell that distinctive odor when I let the dog out in the yard, around 6:00 a.m.”
Saldaña contacted councilmember Chris Cate in early November. Allen Young from Cate’s office responded that city staff were working on the odor problem. He also provided contact information for Mike Zu Hone of the city’s Environmental Services Department — asking residents to contact him directly with complaints.
Janis Deady said the smell sometimes wakes her up in the middle of the night. Deady has lived in her University City home (about four miles away from the landfill) for more than 20 years. “I have never smelled anything like this before. This didn’t occur until the landfill started to get full. It started about this same time last year. It was very difficult to figure out who we could report it to; everybody passed the buck. It’s absurd.
“After months of complaining, the [Air Pollution Control District] finally started sending someone out. The problem is, by the time they get here, the odor was gone.”
The Air Pollution Control District is a county agency responsible for monitoring air quality.
“Because the landfill is full,” Deady says, “to save space, instead of covering the trash with dirt, they have started covering it every night with tarp and then the next morning, they uncover it and put in more trash. When the Santa Ana winds are blowing, you can really smell it.”
Mahiany P. Luther, chief of departmental operations for the compliance division of the Air Pollution Control District, said that a citation issued in March 2016 was for violating the nuisance rule [Rule 51], which states that no one can discharge air contaminants that cause a nuisance.
The district emailed me a spreadsheet showing 90 complaints starting in 2016, some from the landfill itself, which led to the March citation. “Putrid” was an oft-used adjective.
One complainant declared, “It now smells like the odor is being covered up by another scent. It smells like cologne of a sweaty, smelly, stinky person; you can smell the stink over the cologne. I don’t want to smell the stinky person wearing cologne. I want clean air.”
Luther said the citation was resolved when the county no longer detected “nuisance” odors coming from the landfill.
On December 5, Luther said her department had received ten landfill-odor complaints since October. Investigations determined that the landfill was in compliance.
Compared to what I had heard from residents, ten complaints seemed a bit low. Some residents I spoke to said they had called the city’s Environmental Services Department directly. I asked if the city was required to report those complaints to the county. According to Luther, no.
On December 15, Mike Thompson, deputy director of the Environmental Services Department’s disposal division, answered a few questions.
Has the city identified the source of the odors? Thompson cited other potential causes of odors besides the landfill, such as storm drains, run-off water in canyons, homeless camps, sewers, and the Miramar Water Treatment Plant.
How many complaints has the city received in 2016? Thompson said they logged 30 (landfill), 20 (greenery), 6 (biosolids center), and 15 (various incidental odors).
When asked about any recent operational changes that could be a contributing factor, he said there have been none within the past year that would contribute to the odor issue.
I asked about one resident’s claim that using a tarp instead of dirt to cover up the trash is something new and if that might be a factor. Thompson said that the landfill has been using a regulatory approved tarp system since 2005.
I asked Thompson about the eventual landfill closure and what in particular is making it possible to extend the one-time 2012 closure to 2030. Thompson said, “The utilization of tarps [using less soil], better compaction techniques and the Zero Waste Plan have all contributed to the 2030 projection for closure.”
The goal of the Zero Waste Plan is to reuse, rather than dispose of all trash by 2040. The 2020 goal is to divert 75 percent, which will likely be met, considering the current diversion rate is said to be 67 percent; however, this rate has remained stagnant since 2010.
The impetus for zero waste, in part, was a 1989 state law that required 25 percent diversion of all solid waste by the year 1995 and 50 percent by the year 2000.
The zero-waste goal, in part, will be made possible by the city diverting an estimated $26.4 million of $47.7 million from the Miramar Landfill closure and post-closure fund (established in 1995). In December 2015, the city council voted unanimously to do so, with $18.1 million of these funds authorized for release in January 2016. Closure costs of $29.6 million will remain encumbered.
Does zero waste figure anywhere into the complaints? Thompson said that some complaints pointed to the greenery/food-waste operation as a potential source, and that it is part of the Zero Waste Plan.
How was the March violation resolved? Thompson said they ceased turning greenery/compost on the weekends. They also added sprinklers to help with dust control. They are currently working with an odor-mitigation company to conduct a pilot program (starting in January) using an odor neutralizer.
In a March 2016 letter to the county, the city commented that the number of complaints leading to the citation were substantially more than received over the past several decades. Fingers pointed at early January 2016 rain, saying that the storm was rated as “a once in one-hundred year event.”
The letter states that in late January, they identified the compost operations as a source of odor. Within days, a new procedure was implemented to cover the compost with plastic whenever there was a 40 percent chance of rain. They also started turning the compost more frequently. In February, an odor-neutralizing agent was introduced into the greenery operation.
In a follow-up July letter, the city said a firm they hired to take air samples determined that the landfill was not the source of odors. The city agreed to pay the county $15,000 to settle the matter, with the condition that they didn’t have to admit liability.
As of December 30, Bustos hadn't received a call back from Hone about her complaint on Thanksgiving.
"This week was by far the worst it's ever been," said Bustos. "I left a message with Mike Zu Hone again specifying the dates and times. After the rain last weekend and the warm temperatures mid-week, it smelled like rotting fruit and compost in early evenings and early mornings. Last night, my husband and I were traveling west on the 52 near the 805 and it was like we hit a wall of odor."