Strong Odors, Stronger Fears, Lead to Community Action
Posted on: Thursday, January 21, 2010Residents in a populated rural area complained about an offensive odor coming from an industrial landfill. Odors were particularly strong in warm weather with a west wind.
Complaints of a variety of symptoms including sore throats, headaches, and lightheadedness seemed to be associated with the odor coming from the landfill. Over time this assumption gained momentum.
Reports began to circulate about cats, dogs, and wild beavers living in a large creek running through the area. They were losing their hair and had deformities. A local veterinarian was said to have examined these animals and determined that “the deformities could potentially be attributed to the landfill.” There was increasing speculation that harmful chemicals dumped into the land fill were leaking into the ground water. Articles and letters to the editor started appearing in the local paper about the situation.
Throughout this time, the company that used the landfill for disposal of production by-products maintained that the company’s practices were not harmful. The industry standard was being followed.
The situation was complicated by the fact that the company was the major employer in the county. The local economy depended on the jobs provided by the company. A large percentage of area residents worked for the company or were related to relatives who did. The trust level between residents and company became increasingly strained with an emotional toll on all.
A small core group of residents met with the County Board. A representative from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) also attended as the landfill was licensed by the MPCA. The commissioners received numerous telephone and in-person complaints from residents pressuring them to take action. A decision was made to hire an independent contractor that would conduct a survey. They would send a mobile unit to the area to take water and air samples and report back on the potential health problems identified.
At the county board’s request, the public health department was asked to work with the firm that would conduct the study. The public health director contacted the chronic disease division at the state health department and shared what was going on. After the discussion, there was concern the study approved by the county board would not be valid or conclusive. The director advised the county board of the questionable validity and the possible repercussions that could result. On the public health director’s recommendation the county board rescinded their decision.
Instead the local public health department, the state pollution control agency and the state health department, in cooperation with the company and local residents, developed a plan to monitor air and ground water. The county health department convened several large community meetings and had representatives from the county board member, the state agencies and the company available to answer residents’ questions. Smaller scale meetings with residents, public health, the pollution control agency and company representatives continued. In addition direct mailings were sent, radio interviews done and articles printed in the local newspaper.
Over time, the fears and accusations subsided. Sharing accurate and timely information, having the results of the monitoring tests and having resource people available to hear concerns and answer questions was critical in allaying most of the fears. The conversations continue and the smells have been addressed.