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Rare stinky nuisances hard to tackle -- or even measure -- in Alaska

Suzanna Caldwell
Wood smoke in Fairbanks. Loren Holmes photo

Something stinks in the state of Alaska.

Numerous media reports of stinky air have arisen across the 49th state -- emanating from sewage pits near North Pole to smoky wood burners in Fairbanks and gassy pits in Palmer.

But what makes something so stinky it's considered a nuisance? For the state Department of Environmental Conservation, that depends.

“Whether it's reasonably interfering is going to be a judgment call,” said Jim Baumgartner, compliance section manager for the air permits division of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. While there are measurable limits for particle emissions, for example, there's no set standard for judging how bad something smells, Baumgartner explained.

Criminal and civil statutes prohibit emissions “injurious” to human health, animal or plant life “which would unreasonably interfere with the enjoyment of life or property,” Baumgartner said. The DEC follows up on all complaints, but cases are rarely prosecuted. “Smelly” situations can be fleeting. A morning complaint may vanish by the afternoon.

“We contact both parties and try to corroborate the issues,” he said. “We do try to get out there and see what's going on.”

Even figuring out who has jurisdiction can be a challenge for the department. For example, if someone lives next to a stinky landfill, that's regulated under solid waste, not air quality.

The only case Baumgartner said came close to being prosecuted involved a set of controversial wood boilers in Fairbanks. Even then, it took years for the state to build a case, despite hundreds of complaints that alleged the boilers were pushing smoky, dangerous emissions toward a nearby elementary school.

Earlier this month, neighbors complained about a stink coming from a demolition dumping pit in Palmer. It turned out to be smoke, but it still had neighbors worrying. Before long, however, the smoke cleared.

“It's funny how it comes in waves,” Baumgartner said. “It's only occasionally that we get the frequent calls.”

Stinky situations

Near Fairbanks, one resident is hoping to get a neighbor to clean up his stinky sewage lagoon.

The case against Robert Riddle, owner of Fairbanks Pumping and Thawing, began in 2011. Neighbor Eric Lanser contends the lagoons constitute a private nuisance because of their increasingly annoying odor.

Riddle owns 500 acres off Eielson Farm Road outside of North Pole, according to a court order detailing the nuisance. His property has planted oats, some pasture grass and sod that he plans to sell. While he cultivates hay for his animals, he also gives some to charity -- but hasn't sold any. In the court order, it says so far he has sold no crops nor any farm products. Nevertheless, Riddle considers himself a farmer and testified that his farm is a “work in progress.”

In 1988, Riddle purchased Fairbanks Pumping and Thawing, a business that includes pumping septic tanks in Fairbanks. In 2005, Riddle began dumping sewage into lagoons on his property, saying he would process the waste, turning it into fertilizer for the farm. The court order notes that human septage (waste) is not only acceptable but “desirable” as fertilizer because it's “renewable and widely available.”

Neighbors first began noticing the smell in the summer 2010, and said that it interfered with normal outdoor activities like barbecuing, gardening and sitting outdoors. The complaint contends it even interfered with Lanser's attempts to build a home and prepare his land, purchased in 2007, for development.

Riddle received a permit from the Fairbanks North Star Borough planning commission to spread biosolids on his fields the same year, though it was noted the permits could be revoked if odor became a problem. The order notes the permit was issued under the condition that the application for biosolids would be mainly agricultural in nature -- but that storing the biosolids could not be the principal use of the property.

Regardless of whether Riddle is looking to build a farm or not, the court ruled that the lagoons are not being used in a way that would afford them protection under the right-to-farm act. It ordered them to abide by the nuisance orders.

So until then, what to do about the smell?

That's still to be determined, according to the courts. Earlier this month, attorneys moved hearings on the issue to mid-January.