FOSTORIA, Ohio — It has been nearly a year since our 11 Investigates team started digging into Sunny Farms Landfill's history in Seneca County. What we found was troubling: a putrid odor leaving some neighbors concerned for their health.
Now, neighbors say that smell has diminished, but a new concern is now rising to the surface, which has them wondering: What's up in the air?
Reducing the odor
You can't see it and some days, you can't even smell it.
But it's a far cry from an odorless air, more like air with less of an odor.
"All landfills, at times, there are odors," Sunny Farms Landfill spokesman Ben Nutter told 11 Investigates. "However, we are not emitting large amounts of gas or odors anywhere."
Remember that claim. It will be important.
That's because some neighbors are sounding the alarm on perhaps a more dangerous issue. It's one that may fly under the radar, but ultimately doesn't pass the sniff test.
"To be honest, I feel like we are in a worse position than we were six months ago," said Nate Heiser with the Greater Fostoria Environmental Coalition.
No off days
At Sunny Farms Landfill just outside Fostoria, there haven't been many off days for the team of roughly 100 employees these last 12 months since our investigation began.
"We've implemented a hydrogen sulfide treatment system that you're going to see on your tour today," Nutter said. "We've implemented an odor control blanket. We cover with actual dirt every evening on the working phase. We've narrowed down the working phase. And one of the most significant things that we've done is the expansion of our gas collection system."
These repairs are the results of major community outcry, lawsuits and environmental violations. In July, Sunny Farms settled with the state for millions in unpaid and overdue operating fees, which they paid off to Ohio's attorney general and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the government group that regulates landfills like Sunny Farms.
"We put the landfill on a step-by-step compliance schedule to get back into compliance with sulfur dioxide emissions," said Shannon Nabors, chief of the Ohio EPA Northwest District.
Nabors said protecting Ohioans is her agency's most important priority. But Heiser argues the EPA is falling short in its duty of protecting Ohioans.
"Now we're talking back in October, November, December of 2018 when the readings were at its highest, the sulfur dioxide wasn't as apparent," Heiser said. "But now there's so much hydrogen sulfide in that cell that what they're doing is they're turning that basically into sulfur dioxide."
How a landfill works
Waste of all shapes and sizes are buried in cells. If it rains, the water seeps down through the heap of trash and takes some of the liquid from the trash with it. Everything that collects at the bottom is called leachate, which is disposed of in retention ponds.
Above this leachate, a layer of gas forms as the waste decomposes, including methane and hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, has a rotten egg odor.
So to contain that smell, Sunny Farms does a few things.
They've installed an odor control blanket, which essentially suppresses the odor from ever reaching our noses. They also suck up some of the gas through vertical vacuum-like pipes, sending the gases to a flare, which burns it off into the air.
But when hydrogen sulfide is burned, it creates sulfur dioxide, or SO2. Dr. James Tita with Mercy Health says SO2 isn't good for the human body.
"Eye irritation, throat, nose," Tita, the chief medical officer and a pulmonologist at Mercy Health, said. "For people that have asthma, it certainly can trigger an asthma attack. Long term, we know people who live in areas where there are high levels of air pollution have higher risk of chronic lung disease."
In a previous permit, Sunny Farms was limited to 479 tons of sulfur dioxide per rolling year, which adds up the previous 12 months as the calendar flips.
The most recent numbers reported to the EPA show the landfill is exceeding that by nearly four times.
But what Sunny Farms officials point to is the remedy reached with the Ohio EPA and AG, saying they're allowed to emit 248 tons per month in this interim period as they work to install a permanent solution to eliminate H2S and SO2.
Remember that claim from the beginning?
"... we are not emitting large amounts of gas or odors anywhere," Nutter said.
When asked how someone could believe the EPA would properly regulate an entity that is providing so much money right back into that agency, Nabors said, "Our whole focus at the EPA is to protect human health and the environment. It is not about penalty and it is not about money.
"Our sole focus and our regulatory basis is to make sure that the rules that we have laid out in the state of Ohio for protecting human health and the environment are implemented, and that's what we're here to do."
Heiser called that a load of garbage, though.
"We're over a year (into) this thing," he said. "Why is somebody not looking out for us? I mean, why are we the ones who have to look out for ourselves?"
But Nutter disputes that image of the situation, telling 11 Investigates several times the landfill prioritizes operational excellence and environmental health and safety.
"During our open house, we had over 200 local friends and neighbors come over and tour the landfill and the predominant comment was, 'you guys have done a fantastic job of changing the way' we do business," Nutter said.
When asked if Sunny Farms deserves any credit for the work it has done in the last year, Heiser said no.
"Because they're trying to create this false narrative of, 'we're fixing all the problems, we're investing all this money.' Too little, too late. You're turning hydrogen sulfide into sulfur dioxide and the levels are way above what they should be. And we were still experiencing odors last week," he said.
Dr. Tita could not definitively say whether neighbors living near the landfill have anything to worry about.
"Well, it's hard to know," Tita said. "Once again, if you're downwind from this, I mean it potentially could have some health effects."
Leaders at Sunny Farms said they are mere weeks from submitting an application for what's known as a permit to install. This is what they need to add a permanent gas elimination system.
Once the Ohio EPA gives the thumbs up, which could take up to seven months, the clock starts on Sunny Farms getting this system up and running.
They have 550 days to do that and landfill officials said they'll need every last second of it.
Sunny Farms will also petition the Seneca County General Health District to renew its operating license for 2020 this Thursday.