As temperatures have warmed in recent weeks, Ty Harding, owner of Bee Hive Homes, an assisted living facility on River Street in Missoula, has wanted to open the homes' windows to let in some fresh air. But he can't, he says, "because the entire inside of the homes get just reeking stinkythat's how bad it is."
At least he and his clients are used to it. Bee Hive is just downwind of Missoula's wastewater treatment plant and neighboring EKO Compost, ground zero of a pungent odor that for years has wafted around the intersection of Mullan Road and Reserve Street, spoiling an untold number of backyard barbecues.
But this spring, area residents had reason to hope the stink would subside. The city spent about $9 million on odor-mitigation upgrades to the treatment plant. The biggest item, completed in mid-December, was a state-of-the-art headworks, the entry point of Missoula's raw sewage, which totals about 8 million gallons a day. And EKO Compost, which composts all of the treatment plant's dehydrated sewage sludge, has implemented a new "bio-filter" design to treat exhaust from its aerobic compost piles.
Have the measures worked? It depends whom you ask.
"The short answer is, not really," Harding says. "It's more disappointment. [Last Wednesday] was a really bad day. And the bad days are really predictable: When the wind blows this way, we have a bad day. ... I've maybe seen a little bit of improvement, but not much."
Last week, an anonymous commenter on an Independent story written about the problem in 2009 said they recently left a window open overnight in their new apartment near Mullan and Reserve and woke up to a smell that the commenter described as "puke boiling on a hot street," an "old outhouse" and "rotting corpses." The commenter said they had to use "about half a bottle of Febreze to get my apartment smelling normal again."
The Indy recently asked its Facebook followers to weigh in on whether the smell has improved.
"It's milder than I remember it last summer," one replied, "but we'll see how it is when the real heat kicks in. Just drive your behind across the Reserve Street bridge around 7 p.m., roll down the windows and open [your] nose."
"The problem has definitely lessened in the past few years," said another. "When it does happen, it isn't as strong and doesn't last long."
City staffers also claim a marked improvement.
"We haven't had any complaintsnone, zero," says Starr Sullivan, superintendent of the treatment plant. "I've actually had a couple of compliments from people who take the Reserve Street bridge every day. They say they can't smell the plant anymore. So it works."
Ben Schmidt, a city air-quality specialist, says he hasn't fielded any complaints this year, either. "But we don't know if that's because people are getting fatigued calling in complaints." Harding, for one, says he's quit submitting complaints.
While the treatment plant and EKO began working together in 1977, creating one of the first public-private bio-solid recycling partnerships in the country, a significant number of odor complaints didn't start coming in until the summer of 2006. The Missoula City-County Health Department issued a "notice of violation" to both facilities. The incessant stench prompted the city, in 2009, to spend $76,000 on an Odor Characterization Study, conducted by Maine-based engineering firm Bowker & Associates, Inc. Its president, Bob Bowker, is an internationally renowned odor-control expert. Missoula also spent $1,500 on a "field olfactometer," also called a "Nasal Ranger," a white, blowhorn-looking gadget you hold to your nose to detect and measure odors. And it also had neighbors like Harding help classify the stink by using color-coded odor pinwheels with categories such as "Fishy/Ammonia," "Putrid/Dead Animal," "Rancid," "Sulfur/Cabbage/ Garlic" and "Fecal/Sewery."
In December 2009, the Odor Characterization Study concluded that the treatment plant was responsible for 53 percent, and EKO Compost 47 percent, of the odors. Both facilities received a list of corrective actions, with the headworks and bio-filter at the top. Still, it was acknowledged then, as Schmidt says now, that "there's no way to make that kind of operation odor-free."
EKO's bio-filter is a layer of straw and other fibrous material topped with a layer of charcoal and then a "blanket" of wood chips, says EKO Plant Manager Phil Oakenshield, who adds, "It's working pretty good."
Not that he thinks any improvements could ever be good enough.
"No matter what you do, you're always going to get complaints," Oakenshield says. "I get people calling, saying things like, 'Why would you put a composting or waste treatment plant in the middle of town?' And it's kind of like, 'Well, when these places were built 30 years ago, there was no town here. We were out in the middle of nowhere.' So the question would be, 'Why would you build your house next to a treatment plant?'"