Government & Politics

As odors worsen at landfill in Shawnee, residents and council sound off

Deffenbaugh in 2011 installed a giant deodorizing system around the perimeter of the Johnson County Landfill.
Deffenbaugh in 2011 installed a giant deodorizing system around the perimeter of the Johnson County Landfill.

A new round of obnoxious odors from the Johnson County Landfill has Shawnee and Lake Quivira residents and some government representatives furious with the landfill’s new owner.

The owner, Waste Management, in turn blames a county policy that says grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste must be composted separately from other garbage.

Residents and members of the Shawnee City Council testified at a recent meeting that the smells wafting from the landfill seemed to be subsiding for a time but now are suddenly unbearable. Vicki Baxter of Shawnee told the council the odor has been the worst she’s experienced in 34 years of living in Shawnee. “The smell was so bad it knocks you over. I couldn’t sit out on the screened porch it was so bad,” she said.

Shawnee Mayor Michelle Distler said she’s smelled the landfill as far east as her home near 77th Street and Quivira Road — a first for her. She added that she’d filed three odor complaints through the city’s app, which were not followed up on.

Lake Quivira residents were also up in arms. Mayor Mike Olson presented the Shawnee council with a petition bearing more than 100 names expressing dissatisfaction with Waste Management’s efforts to control odor and asking Shawnee to take another look at the landfill’s special use permit. He said later he could have gotten the signatures of all 800 residents if there’d been time.

Olson, a longtime resident, said he’s asked townspeople in the past to be patient, but no more.

“I can’t take those bullets anymore,” he said of the latest round of citizen complaints. He warned that if the problem persists through the July 4th weekend, when visitors flock to see the Lake Quivira fireworks, the Shawnee council should expect to see packed chamber full of discontented residents at the following meeting.

Continuing complaints of stench from the landfill have made for a rocky start for Waste Management, which bought the operations from Deffenbaugh Industries in March 2015. Complaints are markedly higher this year than they have been the previous two years. According to Shawnee’s records, there have been 197 complaints about smells since January — more than for the entirety of 2015 — and four times as many as in 2014, when there were 47 complaints.

In February, members of the Shawnee Planning Commission blasted Waste Management representatives for the high number of complaints about smells, drifting trash and muddy roads. The company has since installed wells to collect the gas given off by decomposing trash and flares to burn off the excess. At the time, the company said heavy spring rains had caused more gas buildup than usual.

The odors seemed to abate a bit after that, but city and county logs show they’ve increased again the past two months.

Some council members questioned why the new owner has had so many problems with complaints compared with Deffenbaugh.

Jim Murray, senior district manager for the landfill, attributed the latest odors to a high volume of wet yard waste that must be composted separately from the rest of the landfill, according to a 2012 county rule. The waste, soggy from heavy rains, is difficult to put through the composting equipment. As a result, he said, landfill operators established a new composting area on flat ground on the south end of the landfill, closer to Johnson Drive.

On June 2, Murray asked the county department of health and environment for permission to dispose of about 300 tons of yard waste in the landfill to deal with the problem. He was denied, however, because county staff who inspected the landfill said they could see little evidence that Waste Management had tried to comply with the composting rule.

Yard waste is supposed to be piled in small rows and dealt with quickly, according to the county’s letter of denial. But instead, it appeared Waste Management had allowed a sizeable amount to pile up, said Lougene Marsh, head of the county health department.

By the size of the pile, it was apparent the landfill operators had not been processing yard waste for several weeks, added James Joerke, deputy director of the department.

“The excessive amount reflects a lack of diligence for managing the yard waste,” Marsh said.

She added that the Olathe composting plant at 127th Street and Hedge Lane has seen the same rainfall as Shawnee, yet the residential area nearby has not had the same volume of complaints. That plant uses a different type of grinder, she said.

“The Johnson County Landfill receives a significant amount of yard waste,” she said. Processing it “is going to be an ongoing challenge for them. It will take the appropriate equipment and constant vigilance.”

Some Shawnee representatives questioned the wisdom of the separation of yard waste in the landfill.

Councilman Jeff Vaught said the letter didn’t show much concern for residents. “If the green initiative infringes on our quality of life, then it’s not very green,” he said.

Distler said lack of yard waste in the regular part of the landfill could impede the breakdown of other trash.

County Commissioner Jim Allen pledged that the county would work with city and landfill officials to get things straightened out. Before its sale, Deffenbaugh agreed to the yard waste separation rule, he pointed out.

“Based on the information I’m getting now, I am extremely disappointed,” Allen said.

Others were also unwilling to let Waste Management off the hook. “Initially they told us it was landfill vapors that were causing the problem,” said Olson of Lake Quivira. “Now it’s the yard waste. I wonder what it’s going to be next.”

All this happens as the city is reviewing the special use permit that allows Waste Management to operate the landfill. City planners have been revising that agreement to reflect their discussions on odor and trash, but council members decided to table the final permit approval until an outside consultant can do a study on the problem. That should take three or four months, during which the company will continue to operate the landfill.

Council members Dan Pflumm and Eric Jenkins argued that the permit should be approved to put the new stipulations in place. The city can bring it up for review at any time if it operations are not satisfactory, they said.

However, other council members said people need to know their complaints are being taken seriously.

The council ultimately voted 6-2 to table the permit, with Jenkins and Pflumm voting against.