News: The Odor of Justice

Neighbors of Colerain composting facility say a judge's decision has taken their breath -- and possibly their safe drinking water -- away

Jymi Bolden

Residents near the NPK Composting Farm have been told by independent consultants that the facility poses a threat to the environment.

Would a landfill by any other name smell as bad? Colerain Township residents who live near Rumpke's composting facility on East Miami River Road say the answer is yes.

The residents lost a Hamilton County Common Pleas Court case on June 9 against the township's Board of Zoning Appeals.

Residents challenged the issuance of a zoning certificate to Rumpke Container Services Inc. to operate the facility in a light industrial district.

The composting facility sits above the Great Miami River Buried Valley Aquifer on a site that was used as a gravel pit.

More than anything else, residents are concerned about their drinking water that comes from the aquifer below the composting site.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) will not monitor the ground water because it is not required by law. Residents were told by three independent geologists that the composting facility poses a serious threat to the aquifer.

"They won't call it a landfill, but a composting farm," said Bernie Fiedeldey, a resident who lives a mile from the three-acre facility. "The judge ruled there wasn't enough evidence that it was foul-smelling or loud or emitting anything undesirable.

The judge is incorrect. The smell can take your breath away."

Residents argued that the composting facility was not in the correct zoning district.

The industrial light zoning district recommends smaller-scale uses such as storage, office warehouses and limited manufacturing "without offensive emissions of odors, dust, smoke, gas, fumes, noise or nuisance."

This kind of district allows the composting facility to operate within 60 feet of a residential area.

Fiedeldey said for the kind of composting farm Rumpke is operating, the facility should be moved to a heavy industrial district, or "EF" Excavation and Landfill District, that allows, specifically, for the disposal of solid waste 500 feet from residential areas. But visiting Judge George H. Elliot ruled in favor of keeping the composting facility in the industrial light zoning district because it was appropriately "processing" compost and, therefore, was within zoning regulations.

"Rumpke can't process something that occurs naturally," Fiedeldey said. "That's just rotting yard waste. There is no processing about it."

The residents will appeal the judge's ruling, he said.

Colerain Township set up zoning in 1994. Rumpke was given a zoning certificate three years later.

One of the facts presented in the case had a significant influence on the judge's decision.

According to the judge's findings of fact, "Prior to issuing a zoning certificate for the operation of the Rumpke facility, the administrator was advised by the OEPA that Rumpke's proposed facility would not pose a threat to ground water."

But three independent geologists, asked to review the site by the residents, came up with very different conclusions.

Milovan S. Beljin, a ground water hydrologist from the University of Cincinnati (UC), said in an independent review of the site that "gravel pit areas are so vulnerable to ground water pollution ... from a hydrogeological point of view the selected site for the proposed East Miami Road Composting Facility is within the worst possible area in Hamilton County."

Jon B. Reid, a research associate professor at UC, and James E. Hough, a geological engineer, had similar conclusions. In his independent report, Reid called the facility "a major threat to ground water contamination with potentially serious public health consequences." And Hough said in his report that the aquifer was at "risk."

Fiedeldey said it was outrageous that the OEPA could make the claim that the aquifer was in no danger of being polluted when agency officials had not visited the site beforehand.

"How on earth could they say that it wasn't a threat to our drinking water, when several geologists say no other place could be worse for a composting operation?," Fiedeldey asked.

Rumpke officials do not think the company needs to do anything about the odor because it has gotten only one complaint, said Rumpke spokeswoman Chrysta Bowlinger.

But the company has responded to residents' concerns and placed a plastic liner under the compost to allow water runoff to be drained, collected and sent to a water treatment facility. Rumpke also is monitoring a ground water well on a quarterly basis and sending results to the county health district.

"Even though we are not required by law, we do this for the safety of the environment," Bowlinger said. "We don't want anything to adversely impact the environment."

OEPA spokeswoman Lynne Barst said her agency had a limited staff and resources to deal with such issues.

"I guess it's a matter of priorities," Barst said. "There are many other things that are of a greater concern, like hazardous waste."

There was no reason for the OEPA to look at the site before making recommendations to the Colerain Township Zoning administrator, she said.

"When dealing with the environment, we take a triage approach," Barst said. "We must deal with things that are already there and a composting facility doesn't place real high on that list."

She said the nature of compost, which is made up of yard waste like leaves and grass, did not raise a red flag for environmental concerns. And the amount of pesticides or other toxic substances in yard waste would be very low, she said. Barst could not say what the potential effects would be if Rumpke decided to dispose of animal waste at its composting facility.

Barst said the reason the OEPA does not monitor the ground water at the site is because state regulations do not require monitoring at composting facilities.

Rumpke has not disposed of animal waste at the composting facility yet, said Tim Ingram, commissioner of the Hamilton County General Health District, which has monitored ground water near the site.

"Rumpke is to inform us when and if they decide to dispose of animal waste at the site," Ingram said.

The composting facility is a class 3 and 4 facility, which means animal waste can be disposed of on the site in addition to yard waste. Ingram said the health district has been proactive because of residents' concerns. It contracted with a firm 10 months ago to assess the ground water and has been in constant contact with Rumpke officials, he said.

"Hazardous waste gets a lot more attention, and it should get more attention," Ingram said. "But I firmly believe that composting sites should not be in flood plains. I don't believe any industrial facility should be placed in flood plains like this one. We need to take safeguards."

He said the health district would alert the residents if there was any contamination to the aquifer, he said. In the meantime, the health department will continue to monitor the ground water beneath the site with help from Rumpke, Ingram said.

"The site is being watched pretty well," he said. "In fact, Rumpke is doing more in terms of safety measures than any other composting facility in Hamilton County."

That is some good news for Fiedeldey, who is scared to drink the water that comes out of his tap.

"This is such a beautiful area, and we want to keep it that way," Fiedeldey said. "We will continue to watch what is going on. But there is only so much we can do when people like the OEPA won't help us. Residents around here love this area and will do what it takes." ©

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