Holding our breath for a solution

Published 11:31 pm Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The stench can be overwhelming. At its worst, it hangs in the air with a presence that is almost palpable. The simple act of breathing in the midst of the odor can trigger an instinctive gag reflex — borne, perhaps from an innate sense of self preservation, some primitive defense mechanism designed to warn early man away from potentially poisonous fumes.

Many of the folks who live nearest the Southeastern Public Service Authority’s regional landfill in Suffolk describe sporadic respiratory and other health issues that they have experienced since the odor began its regular full assault of their senses sometime last year. Anyone who has driven along Nansemond Parkway or Wilroy Road on certain evenings this winter can attest — if not to the claimed health effects — at least to the sheer power of the stench.

Physical effects aside, one wonders what the likely mental effects are of prolonged exposure to the smell. Motorists passing by the area can be momentarily disgusted by it and then breathe deeply of the fresh air into which their vehicles finally move. Those who live in the area, however, have no place to go — and little chance of unloading their homes on potential buyers as long as the odor hangs around.

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Faced with the complaints of its neighbors, who believe the landfill to be the source of the odor, SPSA has taken a less-than-wholehearted approach to solving the problem. After denying that the stench originated from the landfill, the waste authority then dithered around a solution until it was prodded to develop a plan by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which agreed with residents that the landfill was the source of the odor.

Finally, having taken some halfhearted interim measures to reduce the odor — while at the same time arguing the landfill wasn’t the sole culprit — SPSA has hired engineers to find the source of the stench and recommend ways to eliminate it. The actions were grudgingly taken just before a state deadline expired that would have required a response on pain of substantial fines.

The regional waste authority’s response to the problem so far has been on a par with telling its gasping and choking neighbors, “What smell? We don’t smell anything.” It’s time for a little more integrity from an organization that has not been noted in the past for having much to spare. It’s time for a candid and honest assessment of the problem and an eager approach to solving it.

Such attitudes might be hard to imagine coming from SPSA, but the folks whose lives are affected by the unimaginable stench that emanates from the authority’s facility have a right to expect an imaginative solution to the problem — and soon. We just hope that solution is better than, “Hold your nose.”