PLYMOUTH, Maine — For nearly 15 years, residents in this sleepy central Maine community have been engaged in a battle with a sludge processor. The issue is odor, as the company transforms sewage into organic nonfood crop fertilizers. And now a new proposed state regulation could further intensify that dispute.
When Joe Mousseau and his wife were visiting the Plymouth area from Arizona a few years ago, they decided they liked it so much, they would retire there. But then one summer day, Mousseau sensed there was something in the wind — something bad.
"Six months after we moved here, bang, what's this smell?" Mousseau says. "I said 'I can't believe this, I mean there's an accident. There are dead bodies somewhere.'"
It wasn't an accident or dead bodies. Instead, Mosseau had discovered the noxious odor of sewage sludge imported from out of state to Soil Preparation Inc. The sludge is processed into a fertilizer, but not before going through an open-air drying process that produces a powerful stench. So powerful, says resident Linda Seavey, that it actually sticks to your clothes.
"We work hard all winter long and you enjoy a little bit of summertime, but you can't put your clothes out on the clothesline because your clothes will smell like this sewer," Seavey says.
And At PJ's Child Care in Plymouth, Paula LeBlanc says the odors are so bad that she can't meet state standards that require her to let the children play outside.
"The days that it smells, my students get sick," LeBlanc says. "They cry, they whine and they plead with me not to bring them out. It's so sad because our students right now, they need to go outside. We have to students who are fighting obesity, fighting all these things. They need to be active; they shouldn't have to deal with that."
Plymouth residents residents have been complaining to the state Department of Environmental Protection over the years when odors from Soil Prep reach levels that they say constitute a "nuisance". To assess "nuisance odors" the state uses a measurement known as the n-butanol scale, starting with a general point of reference of 25 parts per million. It's an informal process that requires well-developed olfactory senses.
"In fact, all noses are not created equal," says Paula Clark, state director of the division of Solid Waste Management for the DEP. She says the department has to really work hard to find inspectors that have the right nose for the job, which involves assessing the ambient odor as compared to varying amounts of the n-butanol contained in several bottles.
"You would smell the n-butanol in the bottle and you would compare it to what you're experiencing in the ambient air," Clark says. "When you find a match in terms of intensity, you would say well, I think that the odor I'm smelling in terms of intensity is equal to the concentration in the No. 2 jar."
It's an imperfect science, to be sure, and resident Danielle McGrath says that even when the DEP does investigate odor complaints, the inspectors don't always seem up to snuff.
"He sat at the end of my driveway, we drove down and parked behind him and I got out and introduced myself — and he couldn't smell it," McGrath says.
And frustration is growing. The state is proposing a new n-butanol standard that increases the starting reference point from 25 parts per million to 150 parts per million. More than 200 residents have signed a petition calling for formal rule-making on the new thresholds. They're also hoping that the company would follow through on plans to install a gasification process that Soil Prep officials say would virtually eliminate all odors. The company has the needed permits, but Ted Johnston, a lobbyist representing Soil Prep, says the firm will not invest millions in a new gasification process unless it can be assured that the state standards are reasonable.
"It has only been a couple of months that they've had their permits," Johnston says. "Meanwhile the rules are still pending final adoption, once they're adopted we can go to our investors and the people that want to do this project — because they are committed to it — and say 'OK, we can move forward because we can live with this.'"
Until then, Plymouth residents say they're holding their noses, until the state can find a solution that they can live with.