A septic tank.
This is how residents who live near the corner of Mullan Road and Reserve Street describe the odious odor hovering around their homes.
"A lot of them will just say, 'Poop,'" says Bonnie Johnson, who has the unenviable task of taking phone calls from grossed out—and angry—residents as part of the city's new Odor Characterization Study. "I mean, it's everything but a cake in the oven."
One person called the smell "stinking, burning dead." For another—and this is Johnson's favorite—it evokes the stench of honey pots doused in jet fuel and burned in Vietnam.
For more than three years, winds have wafted a particularly pungent odor around Missoula's Westside, infuriating neighbors and furrowing the eyebrows of passersby. Every Missoulian has surely smelled it, and the city is spending nearly $80,000 to figure out who dealt it—the city's Wastewater Treatment Plant or neighboring EKO Compost, or both. Each facility points the finger at the other, evading blame like a kid who let one slip on the school bus.
In late July, the treatment plant mailed out about 1,800 postcards to residents living within a one-mile radius of it and EKO Compost, and asked for their participation in the study by calling the plant when they smell the odor and describing it. Johnson, who works as an administrative secretary at the plant, says she's received about 300 calls so far.
"People are interested in helping," she says. "Some people are really good about it. Some people are crabby."
The postcards and phone calls make up only a small part of the study. In December 2008, the Missoula City-County Health Department issued a "notice of violation" to both the treatment plant and EKO Compost, determining that the odor constitutes an "ongoing public nuisance" and ordering that the two "work cooperatively to eliminate the public nuisance and to reduce odor emissions from their respective facilities to the greatest degree practicable."
"There are lots of potential sources," says Jim Carlson, the health department's director of environmental health, "and the purpose of this study is to get more specific about exactly which ones are causing the problem so that solutions can be engineered to fix it, and so that people in that area can enjoy their property in the spring and summer. It is, you know, pretty rank some days."
So rank that the city, up to its ears in complaints, has enlisted perhaps the country's top odor consultant and state-of-the-art technology to, at long last, sniff out the source.
Starr Sullivan, superintendent of the treatment plant, stops on a walkway spanning the treatment plant's open-air bioreactors. They're like big, rectangular, aboveground pools—only the water is a bubbling brown, all too reminiscent of Willy Wonka's chocolate river.
Sullivan's perch provides a full view of the grounds. The plant, in and under its many nondescript buildings, somehow treats 8.5 million gallons of sewage every day. And right next door, connected to the plant by a huge conveyer belt, sits EKO Compost, a 32-acre brown swath where a few bulldozers move around compost at various points of decomposition.
The conveyer belt leaves one of the plant's buildings, extends over the fence to EKO Compost, and deposits a growing pile—120 cubic yards a day—of dewatered sewage sludge. And more gets trucked in from Idaho cities Post Falls and Hayden Lake. Sullivan likens the sludge to the consistency of cake.
"Fudge cake," he quips.
The treatment plant has been sending the majority of Missoula's dewatered sludge to EKO Compost to be decomposed and repurposed into marketable compost since 1977, making it one of the first public-private biosolid recycling partnerships in the country. Missoulians can buy EKO brand compost all over town for their backyard gardens, enriched, essentially, by their own nitrogen.
- Photo by Anne Medley
- A bulldozer at EKO Compost moves piles of soon-to-be-compost, made from commingled and decomposed yard and human waste. The facility received two “notice of violations” from the Missoula City-County Health Department in 2007 for the rank smell, in addition to the notice it and the Wastewater Treatment Plant received last December.
But while the partnership has been largely praised—albeit unknown to many—public sentiment began to change in spring 2006, when this whole area, and everything downwind of it, began to stink more than it ever did before. Complaints started to pour in. One of the dozens of people who complained in summer 2006 said she called EKO Compost and was told the odor was coming from the wastewater treatment plant. Then she called the plant and was told it was EKO Compost. The finger pointing has continued ever since.
On the surface, it seems easy to figure out who's emitting the odors. But it's not. Here at the plant, while it certainly doesn't smell rosy, it's hard to imagine the odors being so strong that someone would complain, as a neighbor did in 2006, that it's "like someone's septic system blew up."
"You walk through this plant, and I can smell it, but it's not so intense as to gag you," Sullivan says. "So, I don't know."
Sullivan shows me all over the plant, pointing out operations and processes he thinks are the stinkiest, and what's being done to mitigate them. Perhaps the main culprit is the plant's "headworks," the place where all of Missoula's roughly 250 miles of sewer pipe converge and the treatment process begins. Three huge Archimedes screws—invented more than 2,000 years ago by Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse—churn in the open air and lift raw sewage into the system. Yes, it stinks. Sullivan says the plant has been in the process of replacing the headworks for a while now. The design is about 60 percent complete, he says, "but funding is an issue." It'll cost about $9 million to replace.
"We were moving along on this same track anyway before the health department got involved," Sullivan says. "The letter"—the notice of violation and order to take corrective action—"indicated that we had to do this, so it just kind of added to what we were already doing."
Sullivan shows me other corrective actions the plant's taking: The "black box," as he calls it, resembling an enclosed cargo crate, is actually a biofilter that eliminates the odor in the air piped in from the massive fermenter next to it. And the "photo-ionization odor containment unit," a silver box about as big as a trunk and covered in a tarp, kills the odors coming from the thickened waste activated sludge tank. A pipe sticks up and out, like a submarine's telescope, emitting filtered air. Sullivan sticks his nose right into it. "There's a little smell today," he says, "but most days there's none."
Overall, while Sullivan can sympathize with neighbors who can barely stand to go outside, his reaction to the odor complaints amounts to a shrug.
"I had a woman call me last year with an odor complaint," he recalls, "and she says, 'Why don't you build these places out in the country?' I had to stifle a laugh and say, 'We did.' And in the subsequent 40 years we've been encroached upon, and that's fine, but you have to understand that we are a wastewater treatment plant, and EKO Compost composts biosolids, and it's a composting facility, so there are going to be some odors.
- Photo by Anne Medley
- Every day, Missoula’s Wastewater Treatment Plant drops about 120 yards of dewatered sewage sludge over the fence to EKO Compost. When the program started in 1977, it was among the first public-private biosolid recycling partnerships in the country.
"Granted, in the last couple years they've been pretty intense," he continues. "But, I have to say, let the buyer beware. If you buy a house that's 100 yards downwind of a wastewater treatment plant, what do you expect? Like I say, we want to be a good neighbor—we're making plans, we've done some odor control and we're going to do some more—but you can't get rid of it 100 percent. We are what we are."
In February, Missoula's City Council approved a $74,400 contract with the Montana-based engineering firm Morrison Maierle, Inc. to conduct the Odor Characterization Study. Morrison Maierle then sub-contracted with the Maine-based engineering firm Bowker & Associates, Inc. Its president, Bob Bowker, is an internationally renowned odor control expert.
In fact, Bowker wrote the book on odor control. Literally. Some 30 years ago, after leaving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where he worked as an environmental engineer, Bowker joined a small engineering firm that the EPA then hired to develop its odor control guide.
"Quite honestly," Bowker says from his office in Portland, Maine, "when that thing was published, it kind of launched my career in odor control because people would call and want the guys who wrote the book on odor control. That kind of got me started back in the early '80s."
Bowker's resume now includes developing and reviewing massive, multimillion-dollar odor control systems in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Singapore and Australia.
"When I first started out in this business," he says, "odors weren't a high priority. It was the philosophy of, 'Hey, it's a sewage treatment plant, it's going to have some odor.' And over the years—maybe due in part to encroaching development getting closer to these facilities, as well as, I think, people becoming less tolerant of those kinds of issues—people were becoming quite concerned about odor problems."
Beyond Bowker, Missoula spent around $1,500 on a "field olfactometer" called the "Nasal Ranger," a white, blow horn-looking gadget you hold to your nose to detect and measure odors. For weeks now, Missoula's Senior Utility Inspector, Meg Tretter, has been driving around town with the Nasal Ranger quantifying Missoula's stink. She's come to be known as the "Odor Ranger." Tretter, who volunteered for the job, declined to be interviewed or photographed for this story.
Tretter's Nasal Ranger-powered sense of smell allows the city to, as Bowker puts it, "document the level of odor, the intensity of it, what the odor smells like and how you would characterize it downwind of the source."
While Tretter has been sniffing around the neighborhood, Bowker has been digging around ground zero. He came to Missoula last month and spent a week inspecting the processes at the treatment plant and EKO Compost.
- Photo by Anne Medley
- Starr Sullivan, superintendent of the treatment plant, says people ask him why the city didn’t build the plant out in the country. “I had to stifle a laugh and say, ‘We did,’” he explains. “And in the subsequent 40 years we’ve been encroached upon…”
"We're just now getting the data back and trying to analyze it," Bowker says. "I think it's very preliminary to draw any conclusions about what the biggest source of odors might be, whether it's the composting facility or the sewage treatment plant."
Bowker will most likely present his findings to the city in October.
The city already has its theories. In 2004, the treatment plant installed a new biological nutrient system and started sending both its "dewatered digested sludge" and "dewatered thickened waste activated sludge" to EKO Compost. That, the health department suspects, is the primary culprit: EKO began receiving more nutrients than it had before, but didn't adjust its carbon-to-sludge ratio to break it all down.
But visit EKO Compost and, even just yards away from the conveyer belt of poop, the smell is earthy and warm, just as the compost smells when you open a bag of it and mix it into your garden. In addition to biosolids, EKO Compost makes its product from leaves, limbs and lawn clippings dropped off by the city, landscaping companies and residents (including about 10,000 trees last Christmas).
While touring EKO Compost in May for a separate story, I asked its manager, Terry Munnerlyn, what he makes of all the odor complaints.
"You're standing right in the middle of it," he said. "This is what the odor is. I don't smell it. I don't know what you smell. I've been here for so long that I can't smell what you smell."
Still, EKO Compost, which isn't chipping in to pay for the Odor Characterization Study, has received two "notice of violations" from the health department in addition to the one it and the treatment plant received last December. They came in April and November of 2007.
Munnerlyn, like Sullivan, mostly shirks blame.
"Everybody's looking the whole situation over and trying to do a better job," he says now.
He suspects Bowker's study will direct EKO to reduce the amount of biosolids on the ground, and/or change the way they're transported.
Changes will come too late for Lana Clark. Three years ago she sold her home on Small Lane and moved to the Miller Creek area—mostly because of the stink. In her complaint to the health department she called the odor "gnarly."
"It was definitely a frustration that it was so smelly over there," she says. "And every time I drive by it I have to say that I'm glad I moved...You couldn't really sit outside and enjoy having a barbecue because it stunk. At least to me, it was bad enough that I didn't want to be out there. And I made sure, when we did move, we didn't move in that area because we didn't want to be anywhere near that smell."
But for residents who still live downwind, changes can't come soon enough. Count Ty Harding among the neighbors fed up about the incessant stench. Harding owns Bee Hive Homes on River Street, an assisted living facility directly downwind and across the river from the wastewater plant and EKO Compost. When I call and tell him I'm writing about the odor, he says, "I love it. We're finally getting some people interested in the problem other than me."
- Photo by Anne Medley
- Ty Harding, owner of Bee Hive Homes, points to the odor log he’s been keeping since June 22. Most of the time, he says, the odor “smells like a combination of fecal and sewer and manure all mixed together.”
"I've done everything," he says. "I've called the mayor and talked to him personally...I've made hundreds of complaints over the years. I finally got fed up and wrote an e-mail to Air Quality down at the health department. Finally I got some responses only after I threatened to get an attorney."
The next day, at Bee Hive Homes, Harding goes through the odor log he's been keeping since June 22. About a dozen other residents and business owners within a one-mile radius of the treatment plant are keeping logs, too, as part of the city's study.
On June 27, for example, at 7:45 p.m., Harding described the odor as "putrid dead animal." The intensity, on a scale of one to five, was five, or "very strong." The weather was calm, and the wind was light and blowing from the west.
Most of the time, though, the odor "smells like a combination of fecal and sewer and manure all mixed together," Harding says. (The manure smell many people report is apparently from EKO, because the composting process can produce a similar smell.)
Harding follows the city's surprisingly complex odor classification system. A color-coded odor pinwheel includes
categories like "Fishy/Ammonia," "Putrid/Dead Animal," "Rancid," "Sulfur/Cabbage/Garlic," "Fecal/Sewery" and "Solventy/Hydrocarbon/Others." And then each category has its own sub-categories.
"It's kind of hilarious, really," Harding says.
But Harding isn't laughing about the odor's impact on his business. Bee Hive Homes provides accommodations to 62 residents. Most don't complain of the odor because many, he acknowledges, have lost their sense of smell. But their families complain, and potential clients often inquire about the stink. It's so bad that Harding can hardly ever open the windows. He says the odor hasn't affected his business' bottom line, but it's certainly created a hardship.
"It's just not a good image for us," he says.
He brings up the argument made by Sullivan—that people should expect to smell sewage if they choose to live near a sewage facility.
"That's a pretty poor argument," Harding says, "given that the sewer plant is blaming EKO Compost for the odor, and I [agree] that the total of the odor is coming from them. But the ironic thing is that the sewer plant, when they take their sludge out of the bottom of the sewer, they have an option—they can either haul it away, or they can just hand it off to EKO Compost and let them do their thing with it. The problem is, EKO Compost isn't managing their waste properly. They're letting it pile up, they're letting it go aerobic and get all stinky, and then they're trying to deal with it by moving it around...At least that's my opinion."
Outside, on a covered deck with a view through the trees of the wastewater treatment plant, Mary Ann Remington helps her mother, Martha Watkins, 94, walk from one end of the deck to the other. When Remington learns the purpose of my visit she blurts out, "It's not that bad today! Normally we come out here and pass out. Luckily, Mom can't smell."
- Photo by Anne Medley
- The “Sludge Drying Odor Wheel” was given to residents participating in the city’s odor characterization surveys to help them better describe the odors hovering around their homes and businesses.
I ask Harding whether or not he thinks Missoula's odor problem can be solved.
"Based on the history here, I don't," he sighs. "I don't have a lot of faith in the city doing anything."
Hiring Bowker, dispatching the "Odor Ranger," all the postcards, surveys and fancy charts to help him distinguish between poop and manure—it all gives the appearance, he says, that the city is actually taking care of the problem. But he holds little hope that he'll ever stop holding his nose.
Others, though, are more optimistic, including City Councilwoman Marilyn Marler, who represents many residents downwind of the source in Ward 6. In February, when the council was debating the study, Marler questioned what, exactly, the city was paying for when it's clear that the odors emanate from the treatment plant and EKO Compost.
"I was outspoken," she says, "because it seems a little bit silly to say, 'Well, do you think sewage smells bad?' It's obvious. But it seems pretty thoughtful what they're doing, and I really, really hope it yields some information that they can use to mitigate the operations out there...It seems like a lot of money, but it seems like they're going about it in an intelligent way."
Possible solutions won't be known until Bowker returns to Missoula with his odor orders, but he offers some possible answers now.
"At the sewage treatment plant that could mean covering some tanks and scrubbing the air," he suspects. "And at the composting facility that could involve doing some things a little bit differently in the way that they handle the material."
In the meantime, Bonnie Johnson will continue taking phone calls from repulsed Missoulians who received postcards in the mail, even though, as Starr Sullivan admits, such subjective and emotional evaluations probably won't help the study much.
- Photo by Anne Medley
- Missoula’s Wastewater Treatment Plant treats 8.5 million gallons of sewage every day, brought to the plant by the city’s some 250 miles of sewer pipe.
But even if the calls don't help the study, they probably provide some therapeutic outlet to anguished callers.
"Well," Johnson says, "it sure allows a lot of people to vent...I think it helps, and I think it lets us know that there are a lot of people smelling a lot of different stuff. But what the solution is, I sure don't know."