Smells from composting concerning to schools

Published 8:59 am Thursday, July 21, 2016

The cost of keeping the inside of three county schools from “smelling like a dumpster” may fall on the taxpayers.

The school board voted unanimously last week to use $89,086 from the capital outlay fund balance to install an air filtration system at Pinebrook Elementary School to deal with odors coming from a nearby composting facility, but they will ask commissioners to consider refunding that money.

They also said they will vote next month on a similar system for the new Davie High School, at a cost of $85,532 and on a system at North Davie, which has not been quoted.

The smells are coming from two commercial composting facilities, said board member Steve Ridenhour, but the one closest to Pinebrook Elementary, Wallace Farm, is a larger facility and Ridenhour said that was the one that most concerned him. Wallace Farm is  on Wallace Farm Lane off Lee Jackson Drive. It is the second Wallace Farm facility; the first one is in Huntersville.

According to the company website, Eric Wallace, whose family operates the Mecklenburg County operation, said they had been searching for a second site for eight years, and after meeting with Terry Bralley, president of the Davie County Economic Development Commission, they knew they had “found the perfect place.”

The facility, which opened late last year, processes yard waste, leaves, tobacco, animal manure, food waste and other organic materials. They plan to grow the facility.

The other facility, the Gallins Farm, has been in operation almost three years off Rocky Dale Lane. On two acres in the middle of the 150-acre farm, Gallins turns food waste into compost that he sells. The farm is close to the new high school site and to North Davie Middle School.

Jim Moorefield, project manager of the new high school construction, said about a year ago, after spending time at the site, he realized he was going home with the odor of composting on his clothes. He shared the concern with Superintendent Dr. Darrin Hartness that once soft materials, such as chairs, ceiling tiles, and carpet, were installed in the new high school in the coming months, they would take on the same smell as his clothing.

Around March, said Hartness, complaints began about a similar smell at Pinebrook, where children were getting out of cars and off buses in the morning and becoming physically ill due to the smell.

“I don’t think our schools should be a place where students dread going outside because of the odor, and I would hope that, to be a good neighbor, those businesses would take that into consideration, and they would control their processes to the extent to which they can control them, to prevent being an odor nuisance not only to the schools but also to their neighbors,” Hartness told the board.

One of those neighbors is Marc Moore, who lives close to Wallace Farm. He said he began noticing the odor in April and smells it almost daily.

He began making calls to county and state officials and ended up speaking to Dean Lentz, who runs the facility. Lentz advised him to document when he smells something and to let them know. But just keeping a log isn’t helping change the situation.

“It’s so bad that my wife and I can’t sit on our porch,” he said.

Aaron Walker has the same complaint. He lives just through the woods from the facility and said the smell is horrible.

“You can’t stand to be outside. I put in a pool for my grandkids and they’ve come over two times and the odor was so bad the youngest said ‘Papaw, I can’t stand it.’ I thought he was gonna throw up.”

Walker and Moore went to Wallace Farm to meet with Lentz, and Walker said while Lentz was “nice and polite,” he didn’t answer some of the questions asked of him, such as if they were composting chicken byproducts and grease.

While they were there recently, a Republic waste truck came in and brought “dust.” When Walker asked Lentz what the dust was, Lentz said it was tobacco dust from RJ Reynolds.

“I worked at RJR,” Walker said, “and the guys who worked around that dust had to wear face masks and safety goggles and all that. Those fine particles are worse than cigarette smoke; they go straight into the lungs. That dust can be picked up by the wind and carried around.”

Moore and Walker said they feel their property values have gone down because of the smell and that it would negatively affect their ability to sell.

Joe Neely, owner of Raylen Vineyard, said he has received complaints from customers.

“I am very concerned. We have been here 16 years and have never had a complaint until this. We’ve been very good neighbors and all of a sudden, we have a legitimate problem. I am hopeful the county will listen to everyone and do something to correct it,” he said.

But Hartness said his understanding is both facilities are operating under state-issued permits so there may be nothing the county can do.

Moore said he has a list of about 100 residents who have complaints about the smell, but said it could affect about 700 homes. Those people join a list of people who have complained about Wallace Farm. According to S. Mujeeb Shah-Khan, then assistant senior city attorney for the city of Charlotte, in a case law article regarding trial preparation materials, the city of Charlotte received hundreds of complaints from neighbors near Wallace Farm, with many of them from the nearby Highland Creek development. Chuck Ende, the president of the Falcon Ridge Board of Directors, lives in a subdivision of Highland Creek called Falcon Ridge. He said when he and his wife moved full time to the neighborhood in 2007, the smell was horrible.

“It was so strong it could make your eyes tear up,” he said. But late last year, he said, he noticed the smell wasn’t as bad. Ende was not surprised to learn that at about the same time, according to The Wallace Farm Common Ground Committee Meeting minutes from a Dec. 15, 2015 meeting, “…a material thought to be a common factor during fall odor complaints was transitioned to Davie County. Since our last meeting, Wallace Farm has moved three additional materials, one of which could have odor at times.”

Dean Lentz was contacted for comment but declined, and Eric Wallace had schedule constraints that prevented a meeting prior to the story being written.

The filtration systems would eliminate odor inside the school buildings, but Carol Livengood said she was concerned about air quality outside the schools and wondered if the odors could lead to health issues.

Hartness said the necessary steps to report concerns to the county and state have been taken.

“The county has followed up and the state is aware of our odor concerns, and there are parameters within their permits that they don’t cause a nuisance. I’m not an expert in how that’s enforced, what levels of odors are tolerable and what aren’t tolerable, what processes they use that can be controlled and what cannot be controlled. I think we have to step back and leave it in the hands of the state to enforce.”

Wendy Horne asked if it might make sense to bring the composting facilities into the discussion about how to pay for the air filtration systems.

“That’s what’s causing it, so I guess we can’t do that but I want to throw it out there. Should we consider it? I don’t expect them to write a check but that’s the issue,” she said.

Livengood said, “I hear Wendy’s question and maybe that would be a good reason to quickly meet with our commissioners just to discuss that because … there are some actions they could take to make that air quality be improved, that they could also take it upon themselves as businesses. Do we have any recourse? When you’re gonna build a school and then someone else puts in something that causes you to have to spend $83,000 to have to correct the air, I mean where do we stand there?”

Fuller said if the businesses are operating and duly permitted and duly zoned, he wasn’t sure they had the right to ask them to do anything different but that might be a conversation to have with county commissioners.

Hartness said, “We can’t control what is outside, but we do need to control what is inside. We don’t want the inside of our schools to smell like the inside of a dumpster and we have a solution now that can control that indoor air quality that we feel like will be a good solution based on what our experts have said.”