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.
Most smells are caused by hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, according to a fact sheet posted on the DEC website. "Humans can detect hydrogen sulfide and ammonia odors at very low levels in air, generally below levels that would cause health effects," the DEC said.
Hydrogen sulfide — often described as smelling like rotten eggs — occurs in leachate, which is moisture from rain that has passed through the landfill.
Methane and carbon dioxide make up from 90 percent to 98 percent of landfill gases, the DEC said. Both are colorless, odorless gases that can cause shortness of breath and elevated heart rates. Severe loss of oxygen may cause nausea, vomiting, fatigue or loss of consciousness, but that is rare in cases related to landfills, the DEC said.
Gases are created by the natural breakdown of landfill waste. The amount of gas depends on a variety of factors; gas production generally increases in high heat and rainy weather, the DEC said.
Short-term exposure to hydrogen sulfide and ammonia can cause breathing problems, headaches, nausea, coughing, and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, the DEC said. Long-term exposure has been found to aggravate asthma and cause sleeping difficulties, chest pain and weight loss.
Gases can seep through soil and enter buildings through cracks and utility spaces; they also can become airborne and enter through windows, doors and vents. Gases typically gather in poorly ventilated areas such as basements.
The town has capped all filled sections of the landfill and installed 268 wells that capture gases, which are burned off by an on-site flare. The DEC said in January the wells will "mitigate and manage" gases safely: "This will potentially alleviate or reduce the off-site odor impact currently experienced by the adjoining neighborhood."
Leachate is collected in two 860,000-gallon tanks and treated with a hydrogen peroxide solution that neutralizes hydrogen sulfide. Leachate also is carted off to sewage treatment plants.
That's not clear. Numerous studies have failed to show a direct link, largely because of the difficulty of tracing diseases to specific causes. A 2000 British report concluded that while studies show "real risks" associated with living near landfills, "a causal relationship between landfill exposures and cancers is still weak." The lawsuit filed last year claims as many as 35 people contracted cancer because of the landfill. The town said in response that federal and state tests had found air quality around the landfill was safe. The lawsuit is its preliminary stages and no court dates have been set, a town spokesman said.
Not right away. Landfills can produce gases for 50 years or more, the DEC said. Brookhaven has set aside funds to maintain the landfill for decades after it closes.
“The landfill is going to continue to generate leachate until it dries up,” Tonjes said. “They haven’t completely dried up yet, so there probably is going to be a couple of decades” of continued leachate.
Not far from the landfill are two Suffolk County sewage treatment plants, two privately operated trash transfer stations, concrete and asphalt plants, and an automobile storage facility, town officials say. And right across the street from the landfill is Long Island Compost, a private company that processes food and yard waste.
"There are a number of adjacent facilities that contribute to the odor," Christopher Andrade, who runs the landfill as Brookhaven's commissioner of recycling and sustainable materials management, said at a town board meeting earlier this year. "We're an easy target."
The DEC partly backed up the town's assertion: The same study that linked odors to the landfill in December also attributed some smells to Long Island Compost. The DEC said it received 17 complaints about the company last year.
Long Island Compost president Charles Vigliotti did not respond to requests for comment.
Town officials plan to convert the landfill site to an energy park, with power generation systems such as solar arrays and fuel cells that could provide electricity to more than 11,000 homes. The landfill is expected to close in 2024, when it reaches its maximum capacity, Brookhaven officials have said.
Call the DEC's odor hotline at 631-444-0380 or visit the DEC website, dec.ny.gov.