That smell? It’s the landfill

Published 11:28 pm Thursday, February 18, 2010

A community meeting on Thursday night prompted a couple of outbursts in the crowd and left residents still wondering whether the mysterious stench in the Nansemond Parkway area is harmful to their health.

“I think most people are concerned about health, and that was not answered and not even addressed,” said Joseph Cole, an area resident who attended the meeting. “They want to know for sure the odor is not going to adversely affect their health.”

About 130 residents came to the meeting to hear from city staffers, the Southeastern Public Service Authority, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and other entities about possible causes of the stench.

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Residents in the area began complaining of an offensive odor in late fall, and many say they have suffered nausea, sore throats, itchy and watery eyes, migraines, asthma attacks and vomiting because of the smell.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality says the smell is coming from the Southeastern Public Service Authority regional landfill, and notified the trash authority on Wednesday that it plans to take action against the authority. SPSA will be required to come up with a plan of action to mitigate the smell.

“My personal opinion is it is the Cell VI generation of methane gas,” said David Sellers, an air inspector for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Sellers said the odor has likely been so prominent lately because the wet weather has caused the trash in Cell VI — where SPSA currently is dumping trash — to decompose more quickly than normal, and a system to filter off the gases has not yet been installed. The authority likely will be required to install such a system earlier than otherwise would be required because of the odor problem, Sellers said.

Rotting trash generates several chemicals, one of which is hydrogen sulfide, Sellers said. The Material Safety Data Sheet for hydrogen sulfide notes that exposure for short periods can cause irritation in the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness, nausea and nervousness. Chronic exposure can cause nausea, headache, shortness of breath, sleep disturbance, and eye and throat irritation. It smells like rotten eggs, according to the sheet.

Rowland Taylor, SPSA executive director, said during his presentation that nobody has positively identified the source of the smell, leading to confusion in the audience.

Whatever the source of the odor, Cole said, people just want to know what it is and if it will harm their health.

“I’m not sufficiently satisfied the health concerns were addressed,” Cole said.

Sellers said SPSA could be required to test and monitor the type and amount of gases coming from its facility as part of its response plan. He did not know if the landfill gases are capable of causing the physical reactions residents have reported because nobody has tested to see how much of the gases are being emitted.

One woman in the audience interrupted the meeting, screaming that the meeting was a “cover-up” and threatening to get the ACLU and NAACP involved.

“Y’all have done nothing to help us,” she yelled. When city spokeswoman Debbie George asked her to step outside, the woman yelled “You can’t ask me to step anywhere.”

Residents at the meeting were encouraged to call 1-800-468-8892 or 757-518-2113 when they smell the stench.