Stinky food waste composters face Metro odour fees

Regional district plans to charge plant operators based on smell

An odour testing panelist sniffs a sample at a lab. Metro Vancouver sends odour samples it needs testing to an Ontario lab.

An odour testing panelist sniffs a sample at a lab. Metro Vancouver sends odour samples it needs testing to an Ontario lab.

Industries such as organic composting plants that stink up a local neighbourhood may soon pay fees to Metro Vancouver based on the severity of the odours they emit.

The fees are being proposed on a polluter-pay basis to recover what Metro says is hundreds of thousands of dollars a year expended in staff time responding to industrial odour complaints.

“What we’re saying is you can emit the odour but we’re going to charge you based on what impact that odour has,” said Ray Robb, Metro’s regulation and enforcement division manager.

The details are set out in a Metro discussion paper that proposes to categorize different emitters based on high, medium and low risk of posing an odour problem.

Officials will consider how much odour is emitted, as well as how well it is dispersed and the proximity to people it might offend.

“If you put a stinky thing in the middle of nowhere and put it up a tall stack and nobody smells it, who cares?” Robb said.

“Put that same emission source in the middle of a community – maybe at the bottom of a hill where it drifts up a hillside and ruins everybody’s weekend – that’s a substantially different matter.”

Industries deemed high risk – which include compost operations with more than 10,000 cubic metres of compostibles on site and animal renderers – would be charged $5 per year for every person they expose to a specified level of smell. (For how that’s measured, see sidebar Gauging odour is a job for humans, not machinery)

Metro estimates the fees might add up to $110,000 per year for the worst offenders.

Robb said about six operators might now be in the high-risk category, but added more new sources are coming on stream as cities divert more organic waste from landfills.

Moderate risk facilities would pay a $500 registration fee and have to develop an odour management plan, which could be subject to review and higher fees if Metro decides the odour is offending the community. Low-risk sites face no fees or requirements.

Robb said it’s an important issue to address now because Metro’s decision to mandate curbside organic waste pickup means huge volumes of food waste will be composted at facilities that will be built in the region.

Fraser Richmond Soil and Fibre is the existing operator taking some food waste already but more are expected to spring up.

All organics will be banned from the region’s dumps and transfer stations by 2015 and residents will be required to put all their food waste in a green bin instead of the garbage.

Metro’s discussion paper says smelly emissions can interfere with sleep, add to stress and anxiety, disrupt family barbecues and cause health impacts ranging from nausea and watery eyes to headaches and sore throats.

It’s not the first time air quality regulators have tried to slap fees on stinky industries.

But a previous effort by Metro to actually regulate or outlaw extreme odours was struck down by an environmental appeal board.

This time, the region is just trying to recover costs through fees, rather than trying to enforce limits.

Robb said the odour response costs are being unfairly borne either by other air polluters through fees on their contaminants or else by taxpayers.

The region is seeking feedback on the plan and the Metro board would still vote on any bylaw imposing the fees.

Metro’s own sewage treatment plants would be exempt from the odour fees.

Robb said they aren’t subject to Metro’s air quality rules because they are regulated separately by the province.

Gauging odour is a job for humans, not machinery

There’s no high-tech smell-o-meter to precisely gauge industrial stink for the purpose of levying fees.

Instead, the measurement depends on finely tuned human schnozzes and an internationally accepted methodology.

“It’s not as witchcrafty as people think,” said Metro Vancouver air quality division Ray Robb.

He said the first step is to carefully collect a sample of a suspect odour in a special emission bag that’s then sent to an Ontario lab.

A panel of eight odour testers is convened there to smell the sample.

They’re carefully selected – only 20 per cent of the population has the right nasal sensitivity and the ability to consistently detect odours at a certain intensity.

Each panelist then sniffs air coming from three ports – two of which release clean air – and reports if they detect the sample.

The sample is at first heavily diluted with clean air and the concentration is

steadily increased until all panelists correctly identify the sample twice.

The detection threshold – an average of how dilute the sample was when each panelist could sense it – is then expressed as a measurement in odour units.

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