Northern Marina resident Adam Urrutia can remember the first time he smelled the foul odor outside his home on Michael Drive. It was January or February 2013 – just over a year after he moved into his home in September 2011 – and it was right after a rainstorm, when he says the air was still and there was no wind.
“I walked outside and it was like a punch in the face of stink,” he says.
Urrutia, a former Marina planning commissioner and a new city councilmember, has continued to occasionally smell the stench ever since. In 2015, he realized several other residents were smelling it too after he launched the city’s first group – Marina Station – on NextDoor, a social media information-sharing platform open to residents in that neighborhood and those nearby.
“It’s one of the first issues I talked about,” says Urrutia, who adds his neighbors told him Marina had always smelled, and that there used to be a hog farm at Armstrong Ranch, which is just to the northeast and is now home to row crops.
For the past few years, Urrutia and other Marina residents have been calling city officials, and then the Monterey Bay Air Resources District, which has logged the complaints since early 2017.
Among the comments in that log, which the Weekly obtained from the Air District: “Odor was described as rotting garbage and raw sewage”; “Complainant indicated it smelled of freshly boiled eggs”; “a bad smell similar to natural gas”; “smell is terrible and usually in the morning”; “the garbage smell is terrible and cannot open the windows”; “It smells like a combination of sewage and the landfill”; “smelled like the bottom of a dumpster”; “a poop-related odor was in the neighborhood vicinity for three days.”
This fall, the smell was so bad one day that when Urrutia’s daughter walked outside, he says she threw up in her mouth. Urrutia called the Air District, which tracked the smell to the Monterey Regional Waste Management District’s anaerobic digester – about a mile-and-a-half northeast of Urrutia’s house – which processes restaurant food waste from the Monterey Peninsula, and which had the lid off while undergoing maintenance.
Urrutia thought the mystery was solved, though he thought the nearby wastewater plant might also be a contributing factor – Marina is adjacent to facilities that include a landfill and composting, a sewage treatment plant, and in recent years, intensively farmed ag land.
So it’s hard to point to one source, though the digester, the first in the country of its kind, became operational on March 9, 2013 – around the same time Urrutia first smelled the stink.
Urrutia says he’s smelled that same stench about 100 feet from the digester, and is convinced it’s the source.
But Jeff Lindenthal, sustainability director at MRWMD, says the smell would more likely stem from the composting operation that’s been going since the mid-’80s. (The digester has a bladder to catch the off-gassing methane, which is converted to electricity and delivered to the adjacent wastewater treatment plant.)
Lindenthal also says that shortly after the odor complaints started increasing in early 2017, the district began prohibiting the import of two particularly foul-smelling materials, chicken manure and mushroom bedding – the spent compost used to grow mushrooms in North County operations – in its compost operation. The district also began monitoring the wind conditions around the landfill and comparing them to the time of the complaints, and found that more than half the time, the wind was not blowing in the direction of Marina residences.
Lindenthal has worked at the waste management district for 13 years and has only started hearing complaints in the last 18 months. He believes the smell, at any given time, could come from one of the three sources: MRWMD operations; Monterey One Water’s wastewater treatment plant; or nearby agricultural operations at Armstrong Ranch where, starting in 2014, there’s been intensive agriculture.
“That’s the one thing that’s changed,” Lindenthal says.
Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado, who serves on MRWMD’s board, says he’s met with MRWMD staff about a half-dozen times on the subject. He also thinks it might be coming from ag fields, perhaps after fertilizer is applied.
“We didn’t get these complaints until the last few years, but odors [in Marina] have been around for decades,” Delgado says. “What has changed is the land use to the north.”
Delgado adds he’s smelled the stench in the past few years even from his home in southern central Marina.
“If I can smell it from my house, it’s detectable to lot of Marina’s population,” Delgado says.
Paul Sciuto, general manager of Monterey One Water, says it’s possible the odors may occasionally emanate from the agency’s wastewater treatment plant, which processes between 17-18 million gallons of wastewater daily. But he adds that odor control mitigations have long been in place, and that the plant has been in operation for almost 30 years.
It’s unclear if there’s any recourse: Amy Clymo, an engineer and compliance manager with the Air District, says her agency has no jurisdiction over nuisance odors, and emphasizes that smells are often hard to pinpoint to a source.
Karen Smith, a spokesperson for the Monterey County Health Department, writes by email that anyone concerned about potentially related health problems should contact their physician. The county, she adds, has no jurisdiction over nuisance odors unless they are impacting people’s health or the environment.
There’s also another new factor in recent years, aside from the digester and intensification of nearby ag operations: NextDoor.