ELLSWORTH — How smelly is too smelly? Maine Organics, located behind the city transfer station at Industrial Park, turns biosolids from the city’s wastewater treatment plant and seafood waste into compost. But when the covers are lifted to turn the biodegrading materials, the odors can reach as far as Mariaville Road.
“Just driving by makes you gag,” City Councilor Michelle Kaplan said, as the council heard from Connor Wellman, whose family owns the business, and Maine Organics’ neighbors on Jan. 10.
Neighboring business owner Kevin Wallace said he is downwind from Maine Organics.
“I have a huge investment in this town, and it’s killing my business,” he said. “The smell is horrible. I don’t care what time you’re talking about. I went there Saturday night at 7 o’clock and was sick to my stomach at my door. That’s not right.”
Wallace said the composting also attracts up to 200 birds and their resulting excrement, and also rats.
“I don’t know where else to turn, that’s why I’m here,” he said.
Wellman, speaking for his family business, said Maine Organics has implemented odor-hiding measures, turning the 30-yard windrows and screening materials at night and using odor-trapping woodchips as covering.
“There’s really not much odor, it’s very minimal,” Wellman said.
However, while the business used to receive enough seafood waste for one 30-yard container per week, the volume has dramatically risen to a 30-yard container each day, increasing the bad smells.
“What they’re composting is waste, and it smells,” Wastewater Superintendent Michael Harris told councilors. “Not all the time. But definitely in the process of making compost, there’s going to be times when there’s odor.”
Maine Organics takes Maine Shellfish waste, which used to go to the transfer station. But it corroded compactors, Harris said. The composting company expanded to Ellsworth in 2018, helped by a near-$32,000 Departmental of Environmental Protection grant.
“The smell that [neighbors] are smelling now is probably more prevalent, but it was always there at the transfer station,” Harris said, later adding, “I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a baseline point where there’s no odor there. I want to be very clear on that.”
The Department of Environmental Protection licenses the facility, and the city has no odor ordinance, Harris noted.
“Is there a happy medium?” asked Councilor Steve O’Halloran, who sponsored the discussion after hearing complaints from Maine Organics neighbors.
Harris said it would cost between half a million and a million dollars to install a system that would cover all the material and use duct work to pull odors down. Then chemicals would clean the air before discharging it.
“It’s an exorbitant amount of money,” Harris said. “It would probably put them out of business.”
Ted Williams owns Williams Irrigation Systems in the park and has three other tenants.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said of the offensive odors, adding, “We’re in an uphill battle because clearly it’s a benefit to the city.”
The city sells biosolids from the city’s wastewater treatment plant to Maine Organics, although that contract, Wellman confirmed, won’t be renewed because companies are now avoiding compost made from biosolids. The compost is mainly used by construction companies to make loam for grass plantings in medians and similar landscaping.
Williams has contacted the Department of Environmental Protection, tried working with the former and current city manager, and now plans to move his company, he said. “I know what they’re trying to do. It’s not the place for it … There’s no way to remediate that kind of smell.” His bookkeeper, he said, won’t come in but takes her work home because of the odor.
“I think the businesses in Industrial Park have been dealt a pretty significant blow,” O’Halloran said. “The city sold these lots to these businesses. For the most part, those businesses were established before this project moved in their backyard … It seems unfair that this is allowed to go on but not repaired in some fashion.”
Chairman Dale Hamilton said council options may be limited.
“Is there anything we can do? Is it a DEP issue?” he said. “I understand your concerns, I just don’t know what’s in our purview.”
The next action is to review the city ordinance, he said. “We need more information.”
General Performance Standards, in Secs. 801.3(A) and (B) of the city Unified Development Ordinance, limits offensive odors beyond the lot line of a commercial or industrial establishment.