EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ—Residents packed the Township Council Chambers on the evening of January 16 for a presentation and public meeting in response to concerns about odors emanating from the Middlesex County Landfill.
The landfill, located in East Brunswick near the border with New Brunswick, is operated by the Middlesex County Utilities Authority (MCUA). But the smells it generates have found their way to other towns, including Highland Park, South River, and Sayreville.
One month earlier, a school in North Brunswick was evacuated on the suspicion of a gas leak. Gas companies typically add a foul smell to their product so humans can identify leaks of the flammable gas, but in this case, authorities soon learned there was no leak, just the putrid stench of the county's landfill located almost four miles away.
The MCUA's website documents 183 different odor-related complaints received from area residents since November, including one person who twice reported smelling landfill gas on George Street in New Brunswick in late December.
"Obviously, there's some redevelopment and construction work that's going on that's going on that's driving potentially some of that [odor]," said County Administrator John Pulomena, referring inquiries to MCUA Executive Director and State Senator Joseph Cryan.
As we reported, Cryan took on the MCUA's most powerful job last year, but also retains his seat representing parts of Union County in the New Jersey Legislature, where he is one year into a four-year term.
Cryan told the crowd in East Brunswick, "The rotten egg smell is bad for your nose, but very little else," identifying the culprit as hydrogen sulfide, according to an article by the Home News Tribune's Susan Loyer.
"We are operating well below what we perceive these limits to be," said Cryan, citing five parts per billion (ppb) as recent air quality readings and 30 ppb as an anticipated regulatory limit.
Cryan said the gas emissions likely came as a results of drilling and construction being done within the massive pile of garbage, ironically for a new "odor control system."
But, after the presentation, one resident told the Home News she's not sure if the odors, or the chemical that causes them, might be having health impacts on her family.
"It used to smell just five to six times per year and if we could get back to that I would be so happy, but I know it's not realistic because the landfill has grown," Maria Sapia told Loyer, the Home News reporter. "I have four girls. I have asthma. All of them have had breathing issues and allergies. We get headaches. They wake us up in the middle of the night. They say the odors are OK, but I don't know. "
As we reported, the Middlesex County government amended its solid waste management plan in 2016 to allow for dumping in the landfill to continue past the year 2020, opting to extend its life until 2030. Officials have no public plan for what will happen after that.
The move will ultimately allow the county to cram an additional 7.9 million cubic yards of waste into the existing footprint, causing the massive landfill to rise some 55 additional feet to a height of 220 feet above sea level.
Around the same time that the privately-owned "Edgeboro" landfill reached its capacity in 1987, the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders voted to place the adjacent county-owned landfill under the purview of the MCUA.
Soon after, the MCUA took over the private dump through eminent domain, securing the right "to landfill solid waste around, next to, and over the top" of the old landfill, according to state documents.
Presently, the expanded landfill site collects four million pounds of trash every day from communities around the county. New Brunswick, for example, pays the MCUA $66.75 per ton for waste brought by the city's fleet of garbage trucks.
East Brunswick, as the landfill's "host community," is paid $4,316,589 per year by the MCUA for their trouble. But New Brunswick gets nothing, despite the city limits being less than a mile from the enormous source of stench.
New Brunswick City Councilwoman Suzanne Sicora-Ludwig said she has experienced the smell in her neighborhood on the East side of the city.
"In our area, over in Rutgers Village and Edgebrook, it's definitely affecting us," Sicora-Ludwig said.
According to the article, Senator Cryan invited the community to attend a tour of the landfill on May 11 and he expects host another public forum in June.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.