A big stink over odors

Mounting wastes and suburban sprawl sharpen conflicts over bad smells.

The stench was so bad, Lisa Kennedy didn't open her windows. Her children could not play outside. Finally, she and her family could stand it no longer. They moved a mile north to a home once occupied by her husband's parents. Meanwhile, their own home - a mile and a half from a huge hog-feeding operation - sits empty.

"Nobody would want to live there," she says. "We could try to rent it out, but nobody would take it unless it was a trucker who was never at home."

Researcher Jerzy Dec has an answer for Ms. Kennedy: Mince horseradish. Stir in peroxide. Pour mixture into a warm slurry of hog manure and voilĂ ! That slimy smell is a lot tamer than before.

While that concoction from the Penn State researcher isn't appetizing, it does address what appears to be a growing challenge in the United States: odor pollution. From smelly landfills to overburdened treatment plants and mammoth livestock operations, many Americans feel their noses are under assault. They're fighting back.

"Odor nuisance" lawsuits are wafting across the nation as a growing population produces larger waste streams, and suburban sprawl pushes an increasing number of Americans toward once distant yet odoriferous facilities.

"The growth in odor conflicts we're seeing is due largely to a demographic effect," says Herschel Elliott, coeditor of a Pennsylvania odor-management guide for agriculture. "People are moving from the suburbs to the countryside, so we have a conflict that wasn't there before."

But a key part of the problem is technological. It's hard to regulate what you can't measure. And today's electronic "noses" are just not up to snuff.

Researchers typically classify odor offensiveness along four lines: unpleasantness, intensity, duration, and frequency. Making matters more complex, more than 100 chemicals can be involved in a single horrible smell, Dr. Dec says. Current electronic sensors are not sensitive or sophisticated enough, he and others say. That's why his research also involved a panel of trained odor evaluators. And it's also why research on an improved electronic nose is proceeding.

Help from the law

Sometimes, federal laws make odor battles clear-cut. After years of complaining about irritating fumes from a large yeast factory in Oakland, Calif., city residents threatened in 2003 to sue the company and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for violations of the Clean Air Act. The act regulates a number of pollutants and toxins that can cause noxious odors. Confronted with a requirement to install new equipment if it was to continue operating, the old factory was closed and torn down.

But more often, federal laws don't apply. While the Environmental Protection Agency regulates the environmental impacts of large-scale "concentrated animal feeding operations," or CAFOs, often involving thousands of cattle, hogs, or chickens, it doesn't manage odors. "That's a local or state authority," says an EPA spokesman.

That means that most odor battles are local - and subjective. In Berks County, Pa., citizens and county officials filed a lawsuit opposing expansion of a landfill, citing more than a dozen "noxious odor violations" and citizen complaints, according to reports in Waste Age, a trade industry magazine. But a state trial court dismissed the case.

"There is nothing to establish the extent of how the odors interfere with the public health or whether the odors are of a continuing nature or produce a permanent or long-lasting effect," the judge said in his decision. The case could set a precedent limiting the ability of odor litigants to win, industry lawyers say.

Since the 1970s, the number of municipal solid-waste landfills has fallen from 20,000 to about 2,000. But some have reached gargantuan proportions, abutting residential communities. They use an array of techniques to control odors, such as improved landfill-gas collection and storm-water management. Many landfills also spray odor-neutralizing chemicals.

Agriculture, however, continues to struggle with stench conflicts. As early as 1985, more than 90 percent of odor complaints were linked to operations that spread manure on cropland or stored it, according to a study of that era. The rise of huge livestock feeding operations - like the one affecting the Kennedys - has spawned high-profile conflicts since that time.

In court testimony, 18 families in the Kennedys' county, who were plaintiffs in a 2000 odor lawsuit, described the smell as "a suffocating stench," a "sewage odor" that was "unbearable," according to local news accounts. Last summer, the state court of appeals agreed, upholding a lower-court ruling.

Now, the Kennedys and other farm families within a few miles of several industrial-style hog operations are trying to block yet another new hog facility planned for 25,000 animals. Kennedy fears the rising tide of hog scent could wipe out her hometown of Cedar Rapids, Neb., by driving businesses and people away. "We're not going to let our town suffocate," she says.

States often have odor laws - as well as countervailing statutes protecting farm operations from "nuisance-based" lawsuits. So odor battles often hinge on who and what was present first.

"If people build a half-million-dollar house downwind of an agricultural operation, that's their problem," says Dr. Elliott. "But if a farmer goes from 100 swine to 2,500, then there may be some legal standing for the homeowners."

The number of CAFOs was about 17,000 last year, the EPA reports. In Nebraska, hog production has remained roughly flat, while the number of hog-farming operations has been steadily dropping, observers say. That has meant fewer but far larger operations that often concentrate waste in pits and lagoons.

With a typical hog producing three to four times as much daily waste as a human, CAFOs with thousands of animals can excrete the same volume as a small city.

Meanwhile, researchers are hard at work on "odor management" strategies, including diet manipulation, feed additives, biofiltration, wetland treatment, windbreak walls, and anaerobic digestion, to name a few.

Some researchers, like Elliott, say the technology is already available to control, if not entirely eliminate, most agricultural odors. The problem is that for any one company to take the lead, the additional cost would put it at a competitive disadvantage, observers say.

Nevertheless, some operations are pushing ahead. Premium Standard Farms of Kansas City has a comprehensive waste-management system that involves covering waste lagoons with "biocaps" (permeable membranes that significantly reduce odor), combined with air dams to deflect and disperse the smell. But the crown jewel is soon to come. The company's new $9.6 million high-tech crystal peak fertilizer plant in Missouri is expected to begin operation this year. It will turn hog manure into small, dry fertilizer pellets.

Industry officials point out that tightening federal restrictions on air emissions of agricultural livestock operations will also lessen odor.

In January, the EPA announced a nationwide consent decree in which thousands of animal-feeding operations will each pay a fine of $200 to $100,000 for past violations of air-emissions regulations. Key provisions include requiring the farms to report releases of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter - all common emissions from livestock feed operations.

Push to comply

The National Pork Producers Council, an industry group, is encouraging hog producers to sign the agreement. If they don't, they would still be liable to prosecution for past emissions violations. "There's a number of things going on at various levels to address that [odor] issue," says Kara Flynn, an NPPC spokeswoman. "There's always been a willingness to embrace new technology."

But environmentalists aren't so sure.

"The problem is that technology hasn't given us an answer that the industry has been willing to incorporate," says Laura Krebsbach, a regional organizer for the Sierra Club in Nebraska. "These hog farms produce a huge amount of waste and should have waste-treatment facilities like you would for a city. The bottom line is that they are externalizing their production costs. If you live here [by hog farms], you pay for it. If you live in a city, you're not paying the cost of that pork chop."

"A lot of people are getting tired of these odors crossing boundary lines," says Daniel Eyde, president of GSA Resources, a Tucson, Ariz., firm specializing in odor remediation.

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