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Mystery smell stumps Esky officials

ESCANABA — A mysterious and foul odor spreading across parts of Escanaba has left some feeling ill and city employees scratching their heads.

“Today I got in my car and I could smell it in my car. We have the doors open and the heat on to try to get rid of it. People come in and they’re looking around like ‘what is that smell?’ It’s horrible,” said Brenda LeBoeuf, manager of Fastenal on North 30th Street, who claimed the smell had been a problem for her business for two years.

It is believed the smell is the result of leachate, liquid that has passed through solid waste material, coming from the Delta County Landfill in the sewer system. The Escanaba wastewater department has made multiple attempts to quell the smell by cleaning debris from the sewer main, using smoke tests to search for plumbing issues in affected buildings, and using a gas sniffer to try to identify the cause of the odor. However, even when the scent improves, it isn’t long before it returns.

“I don’t want to point fingers because I’d be lying if I knew what the problem was there, if I told you that I have an answer,” said Wastewater Superintendent Jeff Lampi.

As the city struggles to find a solution — racking up overtime and deferring other sewer projects in the city — area businesses have been hit hard by the odor.

“I have employees that are sick throughout the day. They’re nauseous, their eyes are irritating, they’re having problems with their respiratory, coughing… I myself right now am all congested. I’ve been in throughout the day, now after a weekend it seems to go away a little bit, but we can’t stay away. We have to go to work. So we’re going to do what we have to do,” said Steve Coble, plant manager at Delta Wheel Truing Solutions on 19th Avenue North.

Coble believes the mystery smell is the result of dangerous hydrogen sulfide gas, and noted that his employees could smell the gas coming up through expansion seams in the building’s concrete floor. Lampi said tests at another site experiencing the smell did not identify hydrogen sulfide and Coble’s comments were the first he’d heard of the smell coming up through the ground.

“I’m not going to say that it’s in the ground. I’m not going to say it’s in the water. We are a sewer system, and that’s our main emphasis is trying to figure out if it’s a sewer problem. You open up a manhole, the smell is in the manhole. … That leachate smell is what we deal with and that smell that they are smelling is the leachate smell that we associate with (it),” said Lampi.

Over the summer months, the wastewater department took multiple calls about odor problems on 19th Avenue, near the landfill. However comments from businesses Thursday showed the smell had traveled as far as Danforth Road.

For Bob Chaillier, service center supervisor for Great Lakes Home Medical, located on Danforth Road, the smell has serious consequences. His company produces medical oxygen, and the smell is threatening business.

“We were able to hire five full-time employees with benefits and everything, so it’s been going great, but with this approaching, talking with our corporate down in Orlando today, we can’t have that with our medical oxygen cylinders,” said Chaillier.

According to Lampi, Delta Solid Waste Management Authority manager Don Pyle has been more than willing to work with the city to address the problem, and Pyle believes the installation of a new gas burner at the landfill will address the issue.

“My easy answer is to shut them off, say ‘we’re not going to take your leachate anymore,’ and they wouldn’t like that. That would drive up costs across the whole county for tipping fees because they’d have to truck that leachate all the way to K.I. Sawyer or worse. … We’re not charging them enough as it is but (it’s) 100,000 — sometimes 300,000 gallons a month. So it would be pretty expensive to truck that out,” said Lampi.

Council Member Ralph Blasier, who sits on the Delta Solid Waste Management Authority Board, pointed to odors caused recently by fermented waste from the Manistique paper mill at the landfill. In response to that smell, the landfill stopped accepting waste from the Manisitque mill. Lampi said the smells were unrelated.

“That smell was totally different than the leachate smell that they are dealing with in the buildings,” he said.

Lampi said he hoped the sewer main near the landfill would be cleared in the next three to four weeks but that he was not optimistic cleaning the line would fully solve the smell.

“I think it’s going to be bigger than we are to solve this problem,” he said.

At the direction of the council, Lampi said he would begin looking for someone to conduct and environmental review in conjunction with the landfill.

In other business the council

– extended the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association Energy Optimization Program agreement through 2022.

– passed a resolution authorizing the publication of a notice of intent related to bonds for the wastewater plant project.

– approved the purchase of a new sewer truck at a cost not to exceed $436,360. The truck was a budgeted item.

– approved retaining the service of Cleary Building Corp. of Escanaba to procure all materials for the new garage at the wastewater plant at a cost not to exceed $196,792. The council also approved a 10 percent contingency ($19,679) for the project.

– directed staff to provide weekly updates on the city manager search to the council members. Currently, 13 people have applied for the position.

– went into executive session to discuss upcoming labor negotiations.

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