JOHNSTON, R.I. — Residents in this Rhode Island town say the stench moved in this fall, rolling off the state's main landfill and spreading its eye-watering fumes for miles.
After weeks of waiting for officials to eliminate the odor, Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena said he had had enough. He and the Johnston Town Council on Wednesday sued the agency operating the landfill, seeking an immediate end to the odor and damages to compensate for the suffering of residents. He said the smell damages the quality of life in this town of 29,000 just west of Providence.
"The odor has no conscience," Polisena told The Associated Press. "It travels through different neighborhoods. You can't measure the effect of this. It has to end."
The agency in charge of the landfill, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp., has dug dozens of wells to trap the gas and dumped tons of soil to smother the smell. Agency Executive Director Michael O'Connell said he understands the distress the odor has caused.
"There are only a few things you can do to fix an odor problem," he said during a recent tour of the landfill. "We're running out of time. We'll do whatever we have to do."
The odor can be traced to a number of factors, O'Connell said, including rain that clogged wells that trap the gas. A decision made years ago to open up more landfill space for trash may be to blame as well, he said.
Complaints about the smell have come from as far as Attleboro, Mass., about 20 miles to the northeast. Residents say it often smells like rotten eggs, though it's also been described as sickly sweet.
"It's nauseating," said Elizabeth Falvo, a 29-year Johnston resident. Falvo said odors from the landfill occasionally have been noticeable in the past but never as bad as they've been in the past several weeks. "It makes my eyes water when it's really strong."
Richard Zompa began noticing the smell several weeks ago outside his North Providence home, several miles from the landfill.
"It's kind of a sweet, but not a good sweet," Zompa said. "I've smelled rotten eggs and it's not that. It's strong and it hits you hard."
Polisena said he worries the smell will hurt property values and the town's reputation as a great place to raise a family or start a business just outside the dense urban bustle of Providence. The lawsuit, he said, was filed as a last resort.
"We've been very patient," Polisena said. "We gave them the time they needed. The time ran out."
According to the lawsuit, the smell first became a problem in April but grew much worse this fall. The landfill received 46 odor complaints in October and 249 in November, according to the suit. On Monday, the mayor's office received 70 calls about the smell.
After complaints began to mount, state environmental officials started regular landfill inspections and sent roving bands of workers into neighborhoods to track the smell and efforts to end it. The workers have used equipment to measure the concentrations of landfill gasses, but the nose knows best, according to David E. Chopy, chief of compliance and inspection at the state's Department of Environmental Management.
"The nose is far more sensitive than any instrument we have," Chopy said.
The lawsuit, filed in Providence County Superior Court, also names as a defendant Broadrock Renewables, an energy company that uses gas from the landfill to generate electricity. The suit alleges that Broadrock hasn't done enough to collect the gas.
Attempts to reach company executives were unsuccessful Wednesday.
The 275-foot high, 200-acre landfill is the main depository for municipal trash in Rhode Island. The Resource Recovery Corp. is a quasi-public agency that operates the landfill on behalf of the state.
O'Connell said rain was filling older gas wells and making it difficult to collect landfill gas, causing the gasses to leak into the atmosphere.
Several years ago, new landfill area was opened up for trash, but then the economic downturn caused a decline in the amount of garbage going into the landfill. As a result, more "uncapped" landfill space than needed was opened, O'Connell said, making it easier for gas to escape.
O'Connell said the new gas wells and the extra soil to cover the landfill should soon cause the odors to dissipate.
State health officials say the fumes can cause nausea, itchy eyes and breathing difficulties, though they haven't noticed any major health problems associated with the landfill.
At the behest of the local state representative, the General Assembly created a committee to study the odor and find ways to prevent similar problems in the future.
"It's a pungent smell that doesn't go away," said Rep. Stephen Ucci, D-Johnston, who said he's received more constituent calls about the odor than any other issue in his seven years in the General Assembly. "It gets in your car. If you open the car windows more comes in. You have to actually leave the area to get away from it."