Brookhaven officials say they have poured millions of dollars into efforts to make the town landfill less stinky.
About three-quarters of the 192-acre landfill on Horseblock Road in Brookhaven hamlet is covered to prevent debris and odors from escaping to neighboring communities, and the town has installed hundreds of wells to remove gases from the mound of ash, construction debris and decades-old trash.
The facility, which opened in the mid-1970s, is set to close in five years when it will reach capacity.
But the landfill — or more precisely, the odors that escape from it — still causes headaches, for people who live and work nearby and for Brookhaven officials who say the dump is unfairly blamed for odors emanating from other facilities in the area.
"We're not the only source" of offensive smells, Brookhaven chief of operations Matt Miner said during a tour of the landfill last month. "But we are trying to be a good neighbor."
Yet odor complaints in the area generally focus on the landfill.
Brookhaven officials concede that the landfill is partially responsible for odors in the area, but they say they have done everything they can to stem the problem. The town points out that the landfill is in an industrialized section of town that also includes a private composting facility and asphalt and concrete plants.
The town completed its latest capping project at the landfill in January, which is aimed at reducing the spread of gases that cause odors. And though an investigation by the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the town violated air quality standards during a two-week period in December, it also acknowledged there's been a noticeable drop in complaints since January.
The DEC launched its study after 75 people complained of stenches blamed on the dump. The same study that linked odors to the landfill in December also attributed some smells to a private composting facility nearby.
“The smell has gotten incredibly bad. It’s in everybody’s homes,” said Christine Rudkowski, describing foul stenches from December. Rudkowski, who lives in an apartment complex about a mile north of the landfill, told Brookhaven officials during a Jan. 8 town board meeting the odors were so bad that her eyes and throat became sore. “I’m not a complainer. For me to complain must mean there’s really something wrong. … We need to get this fixed because a lot of people are getting sick.”
Short-term exposure to some landfill gases can cause health problems such as headaches and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, according to the DEC. Long-term exposure has been found to aggravate asthma and cause sleeping difficulties, chest pain and weight loss.
Local residents and parents and employees of Frank P. Long Intermediate School in Bellport, about a mile south of the landfill, sued the town last year, blaming the landfill for ailments ranging from respiratory problems to cancer. The town said in response that federal and state tests had found air quality around the landfill was safe.
David Tonjes, a Stony Brook University professor who is a paid solid waste consultant for the town, said while stubborn problems persist at the landfill, the 44-year-old facility is much cleaner — and much less smelly — than it was 25 years ago.
“It’s puzzling to me," Tonjes, who has studied the landfill since 1992, said in an interview. "It strikes me that the town has done a much better job at controlling odors in the last decade, and yet there continue to be consistent complaints at the landfill.”
Use the sections below to learn more about the gases that create odors, health concerns and what happens when the landfill closes.