Opinion: We Must Get Rid of The Smell

By , in Opinion on .

First off, let me make something absolutely clear:

I hate the word “smell.” I doubt any person of reason loves it. I hate it because of what it evokes. To me, when I think of “smell”, I think of gross smells. Bad smells. Annoying smells. “Odors” and “fragrances”, in contrast, evoke something far more pleasant.

But right now, I will use the word smell, for I need it to convey the unpleasantness of what we’re up against.

The smell’s been particularly bad of late. I’ll step outside, or in the vicinity of a cracked-open window in my house, and instantly find my very senses offended. The worst part is how the smell contrasts with this city’s many wonderful qualities…

Here we are, living in natural splendor. Trails, parks, blue skies, electric-green grass. Sublime feats of architecture. The bustle of commerce. Obscenely low unemployment. And a diverse populace replete with ass-kicking innovators.

We do not deserve this smell, much less the reputation that accompanies it.

In my mind, often, I say the word “Smellpitas.” Sometimes, while complaining, I say it out loud. And a dear colleague tells me “Milstinkas” is out there, in good, solid circulation.

What exactly’s going on here? And how has it been allowed to sustain for so many years?

In a commendable (and genuine) show of care, a privately-run, grassroots website has been put online for us to read, learn, and even complain about the smell. It was launched by an environmental group called South Bay Eco Citizens. It’s called www.milpitas-odor.info. Yes, they use “odor” (and they use it continuously throughout the site), in a probable effort toward class and tastefulness.

But let’s not allow language to obfuscate the problem. It’s a SMELL. It’s often in our FACES. It’s most certainly inside our noses and, so help us, our lungs and even our bloodstreams.

To the website’s credit, they do sling the word “stinky” at least once. I was annoyed and embarrassed to have to read it, especially amid all the surrounding crisp, official-sounding language, but then again, that’s keeping it far more real than “odor.” You take what you can get.

According to the smell/odor website, to take action against this ongoing nasal offense, “The number one thing you can do is call the BAAQMD odor hotline every time you smell it.”

BAAQMD is the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Surprisingly, it also stands for People Whose Jobs I Certainly Do Not Envy.

Chillingly, that advice about calling the hotline has been up on the smell website for years. In my nightmares, the phone is off the hook. I mean, come on: You call the hotline and…then what? They make a note — one in a series of thousands? Or maybe they grant us some emotional comfort, so at least we feel better, despite remaining thoroughly disgusted.

Word around the egg-scented campfire is that calling this hotline is actually a good idea, as the more calls they get, the more legally compelled BAAQMD and The Powers That Be will be to actually take meaningful action. Don’t ask me about quotas and tipping points; the idea is that they need us to call when we smell the smell, despite the fact that everybody’s already well aware of its existence. But hey, I’m a good sport, and I’m desperate for results, so here’s the number: 800-334-6367. (6367 spells out “ODOR”, but never mind.)

At Milpitas’ last City Council meeting, this past June 19, Councilmember Garry Barbadillo articulated this very concern, calling for legislation with more teeth, so as to strengthen BAAQMD and get us out of this seemingly closed loop of calling, reporting, seeing no environmental enforcement or progress, and then being expected to someday call again. In reply, District Director Chris Moylan of Representative Ro Khanna’s office pointed out that the State of California limits the air district’s authority over composting — which we know but cannot prove is the smell’s main source — so as to protect those in the composting business. “Achieving your goals through state legislation will involve substantial opposition,” he added, suggesting that “maybe some technology” can get us over this smelly hump.

In the meantime, on the South Bay Eco Citizens website, we’re also given helpful advice on precisely how to complain when we call the hotline: “When logging an incident, try to associate the odor with something familiar. Examples are Rotten eggs, Burning plastic, Asphalt, Sewage/fecal matter, Garbage, Rotting vegetation, Compost. Other useful descriptions are oily, musty, metallic, pungent, light or heavy.”

Right. Um, yeah…what kind of Orwellian madhouse have we ventured into? To be sure, the website is a feat of integrity and thoughtfulness, and it details many measures — legal, political, scientific — undertaken to combat the smell, but it seems to me that once we’ve begun to receive detailed advice on how to describe the smell to the everlasting government hotline, we’ve kind of wandered off the main trail…

It bears noting that the smell’s source is actually not Milpitas. The website emphasizes that it’s San Jose, namely Newby Island Landfills. As such, the site encourages us to call it a San Jose odor, rather than a Milpitas one.

But I regret to point out that We Milpitians Are The Ones Who Smell It.

And, of course, we have the nicknames to contest with.

That’s not all. This isn’t just about mere comfort and pride. This is about setting particular standards of living. It’s not just a sensory or reputational issue. It’s also a deeply ethical one…

This is the 21st century, in the United States of America. One might thus presume that our local olfactory situation would be up to par. A city this beautiful should in no way evoke the stale, old litter box of a flu-infested duck-dragon. The People of Milpitas should not wake up in the morning only to have sweet, steaming sewage omelettes served to us before we get out of bed.

And if you found those last two sentences offensive, then might I suggest that you consider switching to finding the smell itself offensive? To my mind, it doesn’t get described nearly enough, much less accurately or deeply. So I beg you: Don’t shoot the messenger.

Election season is near. The Milpitas Beat will cover it with excitement and energy. We have many fine candidates in the running, with so much to offer to our citizens. In the meantime, a good deal else is at stake. We’re facing an affordable housing crisis. We’re dealing with overcrowded schools.

But I’m going to go out on a limb here…and suggest that The Smell has a pretty special place on our citizens’ list of concerns.

Last August, the Mercury News reported on how Milpitas voted to stop using a law firm in its long-fought battle against the Newby Island odors (again, that polite and sanitized word!). The piece read in part, “In May, the council decided not to pursue any future litigation against Newby Island or San Jose. Instead, Milpitas officials said they would work in a constructive way with San Jose to diminish odors and improve overall operations at the Newby Island Landfill.”

I’d certainly be open to understanding why. If you ask me, it sounds just a wee bit anticlimactic, kind of like Rocky shrugging and offering a handshake just when he’s got Apollo in the corner.

Or were we not even near the corner?

Thankfully, apparently, South Bay Eco Citizens stepped in and demanded that the Milpitas government continue fighting. But unless my nostrils are doing some serious lying, this seems to be a fight that we are losing.

Look, I’m just a simple man. I lack the scientific sophistication of the good samaritans on the “odor” website. I also lack the boots-on-the-ground willpower of the estimable politicians in whom we’ve entrusted our concerns and fates. But I have a sneaking suspicion that if we got aggressive here — if we accepted this smell as the emergency that it is, rather than saying, “Man, that’s really disgusting”, and then disappearing into the cozy afternoon darkness of Dave & Buster’s — we’d be able to get rid of this putrid thing once and for all. It’ll take sustained pressure, and a zero tolerance approach to the stench. It’ll also take time, which I understand, but I daresay it’s already taken far too much of that.

We need to put this thing in our rear-view mirror. This’ll mean immense effort, made by serious people.

And as election season heats up, I’ll look forward to finding out who’s willing to do exactly what, and when.

 

Eric Shapiro
Eric Shapiro is a writer and filmmaker. He is the author of six critically acclaimed fiction books, among them the novella "It's Only Temporary" (2005), which appeared on Nightmare Magazine's list of the Top 100 Horror Books, and numerous short stories published in anthologies alongside work by H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, and many others. His nonfiction articles have been published on The Daily Dot, Ravishly, and The Good Men Project. His first feature film, "Rule of 3" (2010), won awards at the Fantasia International Film Festival and Shriekfest, and had its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest. His second feature film, "Living Things" (2014), was endorsed by PETA (People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals) and distributed by Cinema Libre Studio. In 2015, he won the 19th Annual Fade In Award for Thriller Screenplays. He was a founding partner of Ghostwriters Central, a writing and editing firm which received positive notices from The Wall Street Journal, Consumers Digest, and the TV program "Intelligence For Your Life." Eric has edited works published on The Huffington Post and Forbes, as well as two Bram Stoker Award-nominated novels.
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