Report the smell to BAAQMD 1-800-334-ODOR (6367) Photo: Gavin Munro
Have you driven along the South Bay highways between 880 & Dixon Landing Rd and 237 & N. First Street and smelled a foul odor? Depending on the day and time, it can range from nothing to a powerful olfactory onslaught. What a relief it is to have the bad smell dissipate as you continue driving towards downtown San Jose, Sunnyvale, Mountain View or Fremont.
Years ago, the offensive odor used to happen infrequently, maybe a day or two after a particularly hot spell in summer. But more recently, it’s been frequent, almost every day in some areas. Think of the people who live and/or work in those neighborhoods — they can’t escape the offensive odor like a passerby can.
What could be causing the stink? The most often-mentioned “culprit” is the Newby Island Landfill. Within a 2-mile radius of Newby Island more than 10,000 children attend schools and preschools. The area has a daytime population of over 100,000 residents and workers and the heavily traveled highways see over 120,000 daily commuters. There are several possible contributors to the malodorous situation. The northernmost section of San Jose is home to not only the Newby Island Landfill and Resource Recovery Park, but also:
– Zanker Facilities (multiple operations including a landfill and anaerobic digester)
– San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility (including open air sewage sludge drying beds)
– Salt ponds and wetlands (in various stages of restoration)
There is a grassroots movement to solve the prevalent odor problem. Hundreds of residents protested at San Jose City Hall on January 14th and February 11th to highlight the issue. Scores of people testified at both the 1/27/2015 CalRecycle meeting in Sacramento and the 2/11/2015 San Jose Planning Commission meeting. Residents from southern Fremont, Milpitas and northern San Jose described how the lack of clean air is affecting their children both at home and at school, and the families’ quality of life, working conditions for local companies, and called it a public nuisance that must be removed. Some residents said they live several miles from Newby Island and never had an odor problem until recently.
Republic Services is the operator of Newby Island and currently has a permit application in process to expand the height of the landfill from the current maximum of 150 feet by over 60% to 245 feet. The new height would be equivalent to a 20-story building tower. The grassroots movement is questioning the prudence of allowing the landfill to grow when there’s no determination as to how much it’s contributing to the current odor problem, and established a petition to stop the landfill expansion which thus far has gathered over 20,000 signatures.
Several odor studies have been hotly debated as to the size and location of the areas studied, the methodologies used, the validity of the data and the conflicting conclusions. Many voices, including State Assemblymember Kansen Chu, have called for a comprehensive regional odor study to cover all possible sources of odor. On February 11th, Republic Services announced it has taken the lead in forming a coalition with other emission sources in the area. The South Bay Odor Coalition will be a collaboration of Republic Services, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cargill, Zanker facilities in North San Jose and other partners to mitigate their odor impacts to surrounding cities. Plans include community participants from Fremont, Milpitas and San Jose.
Republic Services states they have been implementing odor mitigation measures. However, odor complaints to BAAQMD (Bay Area Air Quality Management District) resulted in the issuance of five Notices of Violations in January, 2015 (3 to the landfill, 2 to the resource recovery operation). During the first six weeks of 2015, BAAQMD was able to confirm 48 more complaints — 15 confirmed complaints were traced to the Newby Island landfill as the odor source and 33 confirmed complaints were traced to other operations at Newby Island. Residents in the affected areas continue to file odor complaints as the condition persists.
The issue is an on-going concern and will continue to develop over the next few months. The San Jose Planning Commission is expected to discuss Republic’s permit application again at their 5/6/2015 meeting and could vote on the application at that time.
The Sierra Club, Loma Prieta Chapter, is reviewing the available information and does not yet have a position on the landfill operation or expansion permit application.
How to Report an Odor Complaint
BAAQMD (Bay Area Air Quality Management District) has a 24-hour, toll-free complaint hotline: 1-800-334-ODOR (6367)
Sometimes, a BAAQMD inspector can be at your location quickly (within 10 minutes) to confirm your report, sometimes it takes up to 1.5 hours or 2 hours, depending on the staffing available at the moment, their current location and how many complaints are being logged.
Each and every complaint report is important! BAAQMD inspectors utilize the information to investigate and track the odor to the source.
Tips from BAAQMD on Making a Complaint:
“Air pollution complaints should be made as soon as possible after detecting an odor or observing smoke or fallout. The sooner we receive a complaint, the sooner we can begin an investigation. Be prepared to describe the odor in as much detail as possible. Does it remind you of a familiar smell such as rotten eggs, rotten cabbage, sweet or sour chemicals, burning plastic, garlic, chlorine or asphalt? Is it oily, musty, metallic, pungent, light or heavy?
Let us know whether the odor is intermittent, recurring, or constant over longer periods of time. How long have you been experiencing the problem? What impact have the emissions had on you? Please phone in complaints each day that you observe the pollution, not just the first time you notice it. This helps us track the extent of the problem.”
Author bio: Patti Sexton is a community advocate, residential energy efficiency advisor, building analyst, and master composter.