Health Department Officials Sniff Out Problems

Carla Gampola never thought she would be sniffing odors at local landfills when she applied for a job at the Jefferson County Health Department seven years ago.

“But when I got the job here, Bruce (Misselwitz, the health department administrator) told me the sanitarian job would be a good fit for me, so I have been using my nose at the two local landfills in Jefferson County for the past seven years,” said Gampola.

When Mark Maragos became a health department sanitarian 18 years ago, there were no major landfills in the county.

“But then the Liberty Landfill was created and it later became the Apex Landfill. And we had the C&D landfill, so we do put our noses to work,” Maragos quipped. “The training seminar was presented by Charles M. McGinley of the St. Croix Sensory Corp. and he taught us about odor regulations and ordinances.”

Gampola said, “It all comes down to a person’s sense of smell. I may smell something and think it is a Level 4 odor. But Mark smells the same odor and thinks it is only a Level 2. Together we can get an idea of when the odor reaches an unacceptable level. For inspections you want everyone to be on the same page. Together we can determine if the odor has reached a violation level.

“Each person has a different sensitivity to odor. One person can smell something uncomfortable while the person next to them isn’t bothered by the odor. The nerves in the nose are the only nerves that regenerate every 30 days. Detecting odors is all subjective.”

Maragos added, “This is not a science and there are no national standard odors.”

“People who notice an odor near a landfill usually don’t live near the site. People living in the area are usually desensitisized to a particular odor over time. In fact we are trained to investigate odors by starting at the point away from the odor source and slowly work our way to the odor,” Gampola said.

Health Department Administrator Bruce Misselwitz said a prime local example is smelling the coke plant in Follansbee.

“We are used to the smell and really don’t pay attention to it. But visitors to the community immediately notice the coke plant odor. And barometric pressure may cause the odor to puff into the air,” said Misselwitz.

It also depends on the wind and the speed of the wind, weather conditions, where the complainant might be when they notice the odor and the contour of the land, Gampola said.

“For inspectors like us the best thing is to not stay at a site for a long period of time. We have been taught it is best to spend 15 minutes sniffing the air for an odor, leave for an hour and then come back for another 15 minutes. You really don’t want someone there eight hours a day,” Maragos said.

“Even with the flares and gas collection system there are still periods of time when the landfill will put out puffs of odor,” cited Gampola.

“The sanitarian have to check odors and make sure the landfills comply with their odor control plan,” Misselwitz said.

And Maragos raised an interesting twist to the odor complaints.

The same smell of hydrogen sulfide that can be detected to a landfill now also can be detected through the shale drilling process. They are very similar odors. That makes our jobs even harder when drilling operations operate in the vicinity of a landfill,” Maragos said.