Smells of the City

By ALBERT McKEON Telegraph Staff Writer

NASHUA – Windows were kept shut on gorgeous days. Backyard barbecues rarely happened.

Life in the neighborhoods of the city landfill and wastewater treatment facility just flat-out stunk.

But now, technological advancements have largely stanched the stench. Residents can take a deep breath outdoors, smelling grilled food and chlorine-filled swimming pools instead of rotting trash and sewage.

“Expletive,” Benedict Lupica said when asked to describe what he had smelled for years.

Well, Lupica actually didn’t say “expletive.” He used an unprintable word that describes human waste, the smell of which had long filled the air around the wastewater treatment facility on Sawmill Road and neighboring “state” streets such as Ohio Avenue, where Lupica lives.

“It was a rotten (expletive) odor,” Lupica said. “You had to shut the windows. On a humid day, you would smell it worse.”

Brad Mulhern, who lives on Oregon Avenue, a skip and a jump away from the facility, also remembers those offensive times, which he says are long gone.

“It’s a night-and-day difference,” Mulhern said. “It was really invading our houses.”

Similarly, the many neighbors of Four Hills Landfill on West Hollis Street had long contended with the regular stink of trash and landfill gases. One such gas, hydrogen sulfide, smells like rotten eggs.

“It’s definitely better now,” said Karen Perault, who lives on Twilight Drive, just about a mile away from the landfill. “You’d wake up with the windows shut and it was still in the house. It was thick and disgusting.”

A few houses away on Twilight Drive, Nancy Plourde and her family also have a new outlook on life.

“We couldn’t go out. We couldn’t have a cookout. We wouldn’t invite anyone over,” Plourde said.

Not that the smell of collected trash is gone forever, but the odor from Four Hills Landfill no longer frustrates neighbors on a regular basis.

Two years ago, the city expanded a system of wells that collect gases at the landfill. And about 10 years ago, the wastewater treatment facility installed two devices – a biocube and an anaerobic digester – that process sludge without exposing the gases to surrounding homes.

“There has been a 100 percent difference with the wastewater treatment plant,” said former Mayor Bernie Streeter, who lives nearby on Indiana Drive. “The digester solved that problem. Very, very seldom is there a smell.”

Almost like roses

The shrinking number of complaints about the landfill and wastewater treatment facility illustrate the strides the city has made in combatting the smelliest of smells.

Mario Leclerc, superintendent of the wastewater treatment facility, said the staff hasn’t received a complaint about foul smells in the seven years he has worked there, and probably none in the three years prior to his arrival, when the odor-prevention measures started.

“In the old days, they had log sheets for frequent complaints. Now, nothing,” Leclerc said.

In fact, things have smelled so normal around the facility that a resident’s complaint – a reminder of the wrath that the facility faced a decade ago – is framed on an office wall.

Four Hills Landfill doesn’t yet have a spotless record, but Marc Morgan, superintendent of the Solid Waste Department, likes the recent favorable trend in complaints about smells of garbage.

This year, as of July 28, the landfill had received four complaints about odors, according to logs provided by Morgan. That’s quite a turnaround from last year – when the landfill responded to 49 citizen complaints in all of 2010 – and a stunning improvement from 2009, when 124 calls came in about the stench.

Indeed, 2009 marked a low point for the landfill. Many residents had complained prior to then (51 in 2007; 45 in 2008) but in 2009, the landfill’s phone jumped off the hook.

It didn’t matter what time of day it was – morning, afternoon or evening – nor whether it was the heat of summer or the dead cold of winter, residents complained about “strong” odors, “sewage” odors and “bad” odors.

Complaints came from all over: the subdivisions and mobile home parks off West Hollis Street, the neighborhoods off nearby Main Dunstable Road and people as far away as Hollis and Dunstable, Mass.

“It was quite odorous,” said Trestle Brook Drive resident Elizabeth Groeneveld.

But there’s an entry in the log that marks a turning point for the landfill. On Aug. 1, 2009, a landfill staff member wrote, “LFG System Expansion complete. 15 new wells put on-line.”

That notation wasn’t just for the historical record, but it almost served as a challenge to the odors that had given Four Hills a bad name – well, as bad a name as a dump can have.

With the expanded well system capturing gases and burning methane, things changed slowly, but for the better.

In the seven months before the wells went online, the landfill received 39 complaints; in the remaining five months of 2009, 15 complaints came in.

And progress continues: The landfill averaged four complaints per month last year, and less than one a month this year.

Subjective sniffing

As long as the landfill accepts garbage, unpleasant odors will inevitably catch a breeze and spoil someone’s day from time to time, no matter how dedicated and persistent the staff works to minimize the smell.

Smelling obviously differs from person to person. What might be undetectable to one property owner might be a thorn in the side of another.

The Telegraph contacted more than 60 abutters of the landfill to talk about smells, and a dozen responded. All of them said odors were no longer a consistent problem.

A few, such as Peter Olson on Yorkway Drive or Charlies Santos on West Hollis Street, said that even when most people complained about the smell of garbage and rotten eggs, they were rarely bothered.

Some residents still get a strong whiff every once in a while, usually in the winter, but nothing that lasts for days.

“Not rotten eggs, just an odd smell in the air,” Teak Drive resident Suzanne Gauthier said. “It’s only when you’re out. … It seems to be in wintertime.”

Most of the residents applauded landfill employees for containing the smell and responding to their complaints.

“They did what they said they were going to do,” Plourde said.

Good days or bad days, Trestle Brook Drive resident Dave Alukonis keeps level-headed – or maybe level-nosed – about the landfill.

“It’s hard to describe a stink. A stink is a stink,” Alukonis said. “But it’s been good lately. I’ve been living here for so long, I live with it. So, I guess I hadn’t noticed it lately.

“But you know, you live next to an airport, you expect jet planes. You live next to a dump, you expect a smell.”

© 2010, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire