As we move toward spring, I’m looking forward to the warmer weather, sunny days, and the light breezes of spring. Well, sort of…

I’d like to not be able to smell the ammonia and various hydrogen sulfides that those breezes bring in from the west. In fact, I’ve lived here for over 20 years and it doesn’t seem like we’re any closer to a solution now than we were when I arrived. The current situation, where we have an inability to identify the source of the odor — between the landfill, the wastewater treatment center, and the ZWED anaerobic digester — seems to offer up a super lame excuse. I’m sure we have bright folks working on this, and maybe there’s a good explanation, but it sure escapes this Milpitas layman. Perhaps it’s time to put a few crazy ideas on the table…?

First, the existing enforcement approach (let’s call this “the stick approach”) will almost certainly ensure that we won’t get any real solution anytime soon. This approach demands that folks send in reports of odor(s), after which it will take time to investigate to validate those claims, and then some amount of time to identify the source and finally, maybe, fix the problem. And ah, of course we’ll penalize the offender with some sort of fine. But let’s not mention the large legal costs involved in making that fine happen, and then the follow-up enforcement measures…

Meanwhile, Milpitians suffer, having to deal with the smell. I know that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) is doing their best, and we do need them to do it. But, we live here in the valley of innovation, and this is all we can do? There’s got to be a better way!

While I’m no expert, I believe it makes sense to develop solutions to proactively eliminate the problem (more “the carrot approach”). As the odors emanate into the air, it is our easterly breezes that carry them into Milpitas. So, how do we limit the odors from getting into the air?

What about having a solar panel farm? Having the panels over the landfill, as a start, would keep the odors from escaping high into the air for our breezes to then carry them. Then, placing sprayers at the “ceiling” of those panels to spray a solution of sodium bicarbonate periodically will work wonders toward eliminating the hydrogen sulfide gas, which is generally the odor culprit. Then maybe add a pass of a vinegar solution to deal with the ammonia, as that’s the other major odor source. This is analogous to the idea of spraying Febreze to eliminate odors at the household level.

Here’s the “carrot” part: This idea provides the landfill with another source of revenue, from “generating” clean and relatively inexpensive electricity to, say, Milpitas, as we have been the city most affected by the odors (similar to the city of Santa Clara having their own electrical plant, except ours would be a solar farm instead of generators). If the numbers work and/or the plan is properly incentivized, the landfill operator may choose to embrace it, rather than facing countless odor investigations, fines, and high attorney fees.

This approach would be a win-win: Milpitians would get fewer instances of odor-filled air and, hopefully, cheaper electricity, while the landfill could operate safely as a landfill, recycling plant, and clean electric generator. And, of course, they’d get some brownie points for being environmentally friendly while adding another source of revenue.

And while they’re at it, they can expand their methane-collecting operation, perhaps putting electric generators onsite and convincing PG&E to provide a line to them, so they could generate electricity using the collected methane, thus further increasing their electrical generation capability. They almost certainly would get a federal tax credit for their use of biofuels (but check with your tax experts on that one!), and add to their company’s reputation as an innovative partner to the surrounding cities.

As I said, I’m no expert, but since experts haven’t come up with a solution in the last 20 years, it’s time to think outside the box. Anyway: Anyone else have any “crazy ideas”? Because we are all sick of the odor…

Rob Jung
Robert Jung has lived in Milpitas over 24 years, and has over 18 years of experience in the high-tech industry, with companies such as IBM, Data General, Amdahl, and Cisco Systems. He has served as a Trustee for the Milpitas Unified School District and a Chairperson/participant on various MUSD committees, and has been President of several PTAs throughout his 16+ years as an active member. The Founder and President of the Milpitas Community Educational Endowment, Robert is a strong supporter of public education in Milpitas. He has also been active in Santa Clara county nonprofits for several years, including service in United Way and Second Harvest Food Bank. He is currently an investor and a partner in RJLC Partners, LLC.

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Comments (3)

  1. Rob –

    Thanks for bringing the subject up and suggesting some ideas for solution. I myself am very frustrated by the inaction of the government agencies involved – the Milpitas City Council and the Bay Area Quality Management District. I guess it’s fair to say that I’m more of a “stick guy”.

    Several years ago, I spent some time writing to them to explain that there need not be this “where is it coming from?” debate. My brother owns a company that deploys mobile gas chromatographs into the field, monitoring the results and controlling them via the Internet. His equipment ‘sniffed out’ an illegal fuel loading racket on the Columbia River near Portland and several meth labs in New Mexico. All you need to do is park the equipment downwind just outside the facility and you’ve got your answer. The company involved doesn’t even have to consent or be involved.

    His equipment measures gaseous molecules down into the ‘part-per-trillion’ level. (It’s sensitive!) It can sample every few minutes, 24-7.

    Logic tells me that the regulatory parties involved don’t want to find the source. Go figure.

  2. Ron, You haven’t lived in Milpitas long enough. I’ve lived here since 1963 (56 years) and in the early years, before all of the methods being used today to minimize the odor, it STANK. The cause: there was a company at the dump, Colliers Charcoal, who took the peach pit refuse from the canning factories and turned them into charcoal. The first step in the process was to get rid of most of the peach fruit residue that clung to the pits. This was done by piling the pits in mounds and letting the peach residue rot away in the sun. And to top it off there was a pig farm at the entrance to the dump and if you’ve ever been to a pig farm you’d know what it smelled like. Yuk!!! Since then Colliers Charcoal left and so did the pig farm. New operators came in over the years, with new scientific methods improved the method of handling and covering the mounds of trash. Today what we have is a minor annoyance that only happens infrequently at best so we Milpitans have a lots more to worry and complain about like why has the city budget increased, why is the school district wanting money to fix things at the school that should have been fixed by the last budget or why have out water rates increased so fast? These and others far outweigh an intermittent odor. Maybe those few that are sensitive should do what coroners do when performing an autopsy’ put a little Vicks at you nostrils while the wind is blowing in this direction.

  3. I agree with Richard. I live in the Rose School area and I don’t know about anyone else, but I am never bothered by any odors. A long time ago there were problems, but these are long gone. I bought in Milpitas 53 years ago. I bought here because of the location which was close to my work and at the time the water (Hetch Hetchy) attracted me. I’ve always enjoyed living in Milpitas.

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