Tajiguas Landfill in Santa Barbara County | Credit: Lael Wageneck/S.B. County Public Works

Living down-canyon from the county dump is bound to result in odor issues, but residents along Arroyo Quemada Lane noticed an unbearable uptick in the odors carried by the offshore winds from the Tajiguas facility during the past year.

“There’s a new piece of equipment, the anaerobic digester,” said Bruce Hendricks, who lives on the lane, “and it’s putting off a foul odor that permeates our neighborhood.” He said the lane held 14 residences on properties that front the Pacific Ocean along the Gaviota Coast.

The Tajiguas landfill holds about 180 acres of trash from Santa Barbara, Goleta, Santa Ynez, and many households in between those areas. In July 2021, the County of Santa Barbara opened a new recycling and compost-producing facility there both to extend the life of the landfill and to conform with new recycling rules coming from the state.

The anaerobic digester — a set of 16 concrete bunkers and German-made machinery that cost $33 million of the $150 million Tajiguas upgrade — went into full production in August 2021. As the smells came to life and moved with the winds, the staff was doing its best to deal with them, said Leslie Wells, deputy director for county waste management. And there have been a variety of smells, she said, reported by workers onsite, the air-quality sniffers, and the residents of Arroyo Quemada Lane.

The anaerobic digester breaks down the organic material coming from trash bins and yellow food waste carts, and it has a large air treatment biofilter. As the unit held more and more trash and the ammonia and cat-piss smell emanated, the contractor operating Tajiguas noticed that trucks delivering the organics sometimes left the doors open. Those doors are now mechanized to open and close automatically.

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Next, the conveyor belt carrying the digested material from the bunkers to the composting pad — a five-acre flat surface — was covered. Along the southern border of the pad, a misting system sprays water and a substance that odors “stick to,” Wells said.

The next step was to hire a company called Agromin, an expert in producing compost in quantities, to analyze the process at Tajiguas with an eye to making the flow less smelly and quicker, said Wells. One suggestion has been to reserve some of the finished compost — it takes 28 days for the digestate mixed with green waste to mature into an agriculturally usable food for plants — and place it over the rows of compost on the field to “blanket” the smell. Another tack they’re taking is to add a different screening device to winnow the bits of plastic from the compost more quickly, said Wells, but equipment like that requires permits, which take time.

The air quality at the homes and along the periphery of the dump was measured by the Air Pollution Control District and found to be within regulatory standards, said Wells: “It’s not a public health threat.” But the ordeal has been a learning process, she said, and one that understandably frustrates the residents at Arroyo Quemada Lane. “We want to be a good neighbor,” she said. “We know there are more things we can do, and we’re looking at what other improvements we can make.”

Hendricks and his neighbor Jeff Pion told the Independent they believe the smell amounts to a public nuisance. “Every time the wind blows offshore, we get smells from the landfill, and this is not supposed to happen pursuant to the permits that were issued,” Pion said in an email. “There are supposed to be no impacts outside of the landfill property.” Pion also has noted a fine black soot on his property and pieces of plastic from the composting facility blowing onto the beach.

They’ve become quite weary of both the smell and the excuses over the past nine months about broken equipment and backup generators going out. The neighbors who’ve visited the landfill say they’re just told how great the equipment is, Hendricks said, although the county acknowledges the smell and has taken samples. “Meanwhile, the horrific smell continues,” he said.

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