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Editorial: Clearing the Air; City’s Latest Plan for Landfill Odor

Call it “eau de landfill” or Route 12A’s signature stench, but whatever you call it, the fragrance that hangs over the commercial strip in West Lebanon can be powerfully unpleasant at times, and it certainly is no asset to an area trying to lure shoppers and diners — not to mention being an acceptable neighbor to those who live and work in its proximity.

For years, the uninformed (us) assumed that a major contributor was the sewage-treatment plant located at the shopping district’s northern fringe — in part because the smell was so foul, and sewage has a certain reputation. Operators of the plant have disputed that, saying that upgrades and other measures have all but eliminated the plant’s odor problem. Much of the sulfurous stench that assaults the noses, they say, actually emanates from the landfill.

By way of confirming that, city officials announced a plan in 2011 that sounded ingenious. A small company had offered to collect the offending and offensive gas at the landfill and produce energy by burning it. Not only would the city rid itself of the rotten-egg smell, it would receive a decent discount on its electricity bill to account for the power pumped into the grid. Oh, and some of the energy generated at the landfill eventually would have been used for aquacultural greenhouses run in partnership with a Dartmouth College environmental studies program. Cleaner air, local food, hands-on education and reduced operating expenses for the city — hard to beat that.

Of course, it never happened. The company ran into financial problems, and the time spent on reviewing and and seeking permits for the project merely ended up delaying progress on stench-reduction.

Now comes a less ambitious plan by the city. The primary source of the odor is the decomposition of the material used to cover the refuse, not the buried trash itself. The landfill has been using a covering material created by grinding up a variety of construction materials, including wallboard, which is made of gypsum. When it comes to 12A’s distinctive reek, the gypsum is the main culprit. Solution? The city plans to use a new covering material composed of recycled plastic, foam rubber and other nonconstruction waste.

To whatever extent the new material succeeds in lifting the pall from Route 12A, the relief won’t be immediate. That’s because the city has been using the stuff with gypsum for some time now, and it will take a while for it to break down and release its pungent gases. Other landfills that have made the switch have discovered that about two years are needed to eliminate the odor problem, city officials told staff writer Ben Conarck.

But not to worry; the ever-resourceful managers of the landfill also intend to install a flare system that will burn off the vented gases — a series of smaller flares that might fire up this summer and eventually one large flare that will serve as an eternal flame paying tribute to the problems we create for ourselves through affluence and wastefulness.

In any case, we hope the city eventually finds a different company willing to convert some of the evil-smelling gas to energy — it seems like a waste just to burn it off. In the meantime, though, we welcome whatever progress can be made in reducing the landfill odor that gets in the way of enjoying the blend of fried-food emissions, auto exhaust and fresh air that might be regarded as Route 12A’s true scent.