ODOR: Complaints by residents against Sunshine Canyon have increased tenfold in two years.
SYLMAR - A pungent odor emanating from the Sunshine Canyon landfill over the last two years has left nearby residents holding their noses and local officials scratching their heads.
The number of complaints about foul smells from the landfill wafting over neighborhoods and schools has jumped more than tenfold in the last two years, according to state officials. More than 600 complaints were registered in 2010, compared to less than 50 in 2008.
This year since Jan. 1 alone, at least 676 complaints have been filed with the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
"How much is enough for this community?" said a frustrated Wayde Hunter, president of North Valley Coalition, a nonprofit organization which was formed more than 20 years ago.
"There's just been an exponential increase in days when there is an odor," he said. "I'm frantic, I just don't know what to do."
But the landfill's operators and local environmental officials have yet to discover the source of the stench.
Sunshine Canyon Landfill, which takes in 9,500 tons of trash each day, is run by Republic Services, one of the largest integrated waste management companies in the United States.
"We know there is an odor issue, and that is unacceptable to us," said Peg Mulloy, spokeswoman for Republic. "Rightnow, we don't know where (the odor is) coming from. We're focusing all our efforts on trying to find the problem."
Mulloy said new general manager David Cieply has been hired as part of the company's effort to bring in new people to help solve the problem at the landfill.
"The key is, we admit that there are odors and we know there is a problem," she said. "We know people are unhappy."
The AQMD has issued 15 violations against operators of the landfill so far this year, compared to four for the same time period in 2010.
The landfill, at 14747 San Fernando Rd., in Sylmar is about two miles north of Van Gogh Elementary School in Granada Hills, where children, parents, and teachers complain they smell a foul odor each morning until about 10 a.m.
"It usually dissipates by recess," said Gale Gundersen, who called in a complaint to the AQMD on Thursday.
She said the increase in odors began last year.
"It's a strong garbage smell," she said.
The AQMD violation notices do not come with fines, but the agency in January ordered the landfill to fix the problem, said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the air-quality regulating agency.
In very rare circumstances, a landfill is ordered to cease operations, Atwood said. "We've received hundreds of complaints and that shows there is a problem," Atwood said.
The Los Angeles Unified School district is documenting the problem as well. So far, the district has no accounts of students who have been sickened or hospitalized because of the odor, said John Sterritt, director of environmental health and safety for LAUSD.
"The kids are overcome by the odor, and we think that's a really big problem," said Bill Piazza, an environmental assessment coordinator for LAUSD.
Along with the AQMD, Los Angeles city and county officials last month formed a 90-day action plan. Landfill operators are supposed to reduce the number of trucks delivering trash during peak hours, use soil, instead of tarps, to cover the trash at the end of the day, and install several DustBoss odor control units in areas where trash is deposited.
Landfill operators also must conduct odor patrols from 6 to 10 a.m. and 6 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
The city and county formed a joint enforcement team in 2008 to supervise Sunshine Canyon. Sunshine is actually two side-by-side landfills - one on city land, one in county jurisdiction - that merged operations in 2009.
"We're very concerned about it," said Tony Bell, spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes the landfill. He said the county Department of Public Works has been in talks with Republic to make sure the 90-day plan of action is implemented.
While no cause is known for sure, city and county officials speculate the odor could be caused by types and quantities of trash received, methods of handling the trash, and/or a faulty landfill gas collection system among other factors.
City Councilman Greig Smith said officials are collecting all the notices of violation as well as other information, in case legal action against the operators of the landfill becomes necessary.
"We can order them to close the doors which is in our purview," Smith said. "The onus is on their backs to perform. It's taken so ridiculously long."