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NEWS- Crying foul: Woolen Mills residents rue reek

Published March 23, 2006 in issue 0512 of the Hook
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Composting! What an environmentally correct way to rid Charlottesville and Albemarle of its solid sewage waste-- unless you live beside the treatment facility and find yourself the captive of an unrelenting stench.

The historic Woolen Mills neighborhood has complained for years about the stink coming from the Moore's Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. In 2002, a pumping station was blamed. That was fixed about a year ago, but some residents say the smell has only gotten worse.

"This last year was absolutely the worst," says Victoria Dunham, who has lived in the neighborhood for almost 14 years. What started as an occasional "whiff" from the nearby sewage treatment plant has evolved over the last eight years into an eye-burning, headache-inducing, stomach-turning odor that can wake her in the middle of the night.

The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority started composting human waste 22 years ago, in 1984. According to the Authority website, "dewatered solids" from the treatment plant are mixed with woodchips and lime. The plant processes between 8,000 and 8,500 "wet" tons of compost per year, which it sells to citizens for garden and lawn fertilizer.

The RWSA website describes the compost as having "the odor, color, and texture of rich fertile soil."

That's not how Dunham would describe it. She recently toured the facility and identified the unique smell of the massive mounds of compost. "It's really acrid and smells like something burning-- only not wood." She lists the components of its bouquet as feces and ammonia. "Some days," she says, "we get a really strong urine smell."

Dunham's house is the Marchant mansion, built in 1840 for Henry Clay Marchant, the man who created the mills that gave their name to the neighborhood. Now divided into four apartments with a cottage out back, Dunham had a tenant move out after two days when the fetid odor engulfed the property for 24 hours straight.

"Ethically, I had to break her lease-- those are inhumane conditions to expect anyone to live under," Dunham told a gathering of 30 at a March 13 Woolen Mills neighborhood meeting that included Authority director of water and wastewater operations Bob Wichser and Vice Mayor Kevin Lynch.

"We have to keep our rents really low," Dunham adds. And she worries about having to find a new tenant because the smell always envelops the area around dinnertime-- prime time for renters to look at apartments.

Wichser says the Authority is not really doing anything differently with the composting operation. "If anything, we're doing it better," he says. He blames extreme meteorological conditions and January's rapid changes in temperature, wind, and humidity as contributing factors.

"That doesn't even begin to explain September, October, November, and December," counters Dunham.

Some Woolen Mills residents believe that more waste has contributed to the worsening stench. But Wichser says the volume isn't that different from the 1997-98 averages. "We're looking at 1,000 pounds here or there," he says.

Dunham doesn't buy that. She points to the area's growth rate. "This is sewage from the rest of the county coming to our little neighborhood," she protests. She wants to see the compost operation totally enclosed.

Dunham has an orchard on her 1.5 acres that she can't enjoy. "We can't stay outside," she says. And when the Riverside duplexes were built, "People were shocked because they couldn't barbecue," she adds.

Is it reasonable for people who live beside a sewage treatment facility to expect to not smell anything?

"It depends on the circumstances," replies Wichser.

Woolen Mills is not the only neighborhood that's noticed something rotten emanating from Moore's Creek. A Hook staffer reports the fecal odor sometimes wafts to her Martha Jefferson neighborhood. And Fred Schmidt and Vivian Jones-Schmidt, who live about 1.5 miles from the compost operation off Carlton Avenue, have been awakened by the stench.

Even with storm windows, "It just penetrates," says Jones-Schmidt. "The air has a thick, acrid quality. It makes you want to cough"

Summers are the worst. "We can't have the windows open-- and we don't have an air-conditioned house," says Jones-Schmidt.

The sewer authority says it investigates every odor complaint and contacts the citizen, says Wichser. From 2000 to 2005, they had 66 complaints. He's working on a report that will be presented at a March 27 RWSA board meeting.

Wichser notes that some people at the Woolen Mills meeting said they don't smell anything.

Kevin Cox is not one of them. "I can't say it's worse than usual, but I think it's really terrible and intolerable," he says. "There are times I'm happy to get in my car and go shopping to get away from the stench. Some mornings when I leave, you can almost taste it."

"They're saying odor is subjective," says Dunham. "Then why does everyone who comes to my house say it smells like sh*t, not roses?"

The years of living malodorously are taking their toll.

"I don't know if we can keep going," she laments. "It's incredibly demoralizing, incredibly depressing. I'm a chef. I'd love to have people over for dinner."

Photographer and Woolen Mills resident Bill Emory has dubbed the Moore's Creek compost plant "the mother of all outhouses."





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