WEST ORANGE, NJ — A resident living across the street from the West Orange Recycling Center said she is fed up with what she described as a horrible odor emanating from the site in recent weeks, and she has taken action in an attempt to stop it.
Leigh-Ann Zaolino filed two complaints with the Essex Regional Health Commission after inspectors visited her home and smelled the air upwind to determine that the odor — as the New Jersey air pollution investigation guidelines put it — “unreasonably interfered with the enjoyment of life or property.” But the township has not yet been officially notified of either complaint. According to the commission’s environmental program coordinator David Pilas, one of the reports is being processed while the other is under review.
Once the township receives the complaints, Zaolino said she hopes it will act to make the recycling center’s tenant, Reliable Wood Products, prevent the spread of odor as regulations require. Though she said it frequently smells bad near her house as a result of the work done at the center, Zaolino said recently it has been especially bad. She called the odor “brutal” and “offensive,” saying the town should hold the tenant accountable.
“They’re impacting the quality of my life,” Zaolino told the West Orange Chronicle in a Nov. 6 phone interview. “It’s been nice (outside) the past two weeks, but they’re making it so I can’t open my windows because it smells like a sewage plant.”
Zaolino is not the only one who has noticed the problem. Neighbor Dennis Alabi told the Chronicle in a Nov. 9 phone interview that the smell outside his house has gotten worse than usual in recent weeks. Alabi said he has also noticed a thicker layer of dust — dust being another byproduct of living near the recycling center — on his car, which is why he thinks the site is doing something new to bring about such changes.
But Reliable Wood Products Vice President Eugene Ciarkowski told the Chronicle that, to his knowledge, nothing different is being done at the recycling center that would cause a worse smell in the area. Ciarkowski said any odor smelled in the area is the “natural” aroma of organic material, adding that the material is handled properly at all times.
“Best practices are followed with the product, its movement and with fire prevention,” Ciarkowski said in a Nov. 9 phone interview.
Mayor Robert Parisi also pointed out that a complaint from another resident — which, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s complaints database, was filed on Nov. 3 by someone who noticed a strong odor that burned her eyes — was investigated by commission inspectors who found no odor violation taking place. Wayne DeFeo, the environmental consultant who inspects the recycling center on behalf of the township, told the Chronicle that he checked out the site in response to the recent issues raised by residents and found Reliable Wood Products to be in compliance with all regulations. In fact, DeFeo said the only odor he has noticed during his inspections was the smell of the organic material onsite, though he did say that detecting smell is a subjective process that depends a lot on the direction the wind is blowing.
For that reason, Zaolino said one cannot always trust a passed air test as conclusive proof that there is no problem. But her issue with the recycling center goes beyond the current bad odor in the air. And though she said things had been going relatively well with the center since Reliable took over the site as a tenant — as compared to when she first moved to West Orange in 2002, when she regularly complained to the mayor and Township Council about the previous tenant — she said things seem to be “backsliding” in the past few years, ever since Harvest Power became involved as a tenant. Parisi said Harvest Power departed the site roughly a year ago, but Zaolino said the situation has not improved.
Specifically, Zaolino said she has observed many instances of what she believes are violations to regulations the recycling center is mandated to follow, most notably the size of the site’s windrows. Windrows, or composting piles, are required by law to be no more than 6 feet high and 14 feet wide. But in Zaolino’s estimation, the piles she has seen are much higher, though she has not measured them. She said she once saw a windrow that she believes was “four stories high.”
Related to that, Zaolino said she thinks the recycling center is taking in too many leaves, sticks and brush onsite. Regulations allow a maximum of 7,500 cubic yards or processed material — otherwise known as mulch — and 7,500 cubic yards of unprocessed tree parts, wood chips and brush. Yet, from what she has seen, she said she believes a lot more than that is being kept on the site, though she has not measured it, and that that was the cause of the fire that occurred there in April.
The reason so much material is being taken in, Zaolino believes, is that many non-residents are dropping leaves off since the town does not make anyone show proof of residency like other municipalities. Plus, she said she believes Essex County is now using the facility. She urged the town to do something — perhaps issuing stickers to homeowners — to ensure that only residents can take advantage of the recycling center.
Some of Zaolino’s claims are backed up by DeFeo’s inspection reports, which have noted in the past that the amount of material collected was not within acceptable limits and that the windrows exceeded the appropriate height and width. The NJDEP website also has two open violations listed for the recycling center. The first is a Sept. 22, 2014, failed solid waste inspection, which found that the center had the following: windrows 12 feet high and 32 feet wide; excessive amounts of dust blowing off site; 26,576 cubic yards of processed material; and 22,554 cubic yards of unprocessed material. The second is an Oct. 20 failed water quality inspection for discharging storm water without a valid NJDEP permit.
But since the summer, DeFeo’s inspection reports show that the issues previously mentioned have been corrected. In fact, DeFeo said the site currently does not even have windrows. And the fire was not caused by too much material on site, he said — it was a spontaneous combustion brought on by the weather and dry conditions. A small amount of brush could ignite for the same reason, he explained.
DeFeo further stated that the solid waste NJDEP violations had also been resolved well before the Nov. 8, 2014, deadline.
As for the water quality NJDEP violation, he said the township has applied for the necessary permit, which it is waiting to receive.
Overall, aside from the water permit, DeFeo said the recycling center is in compliance with all laws. And Ciarkowski said that shows the recycling center is in good standing.
“It’s run properly according to DEP regulations,” Ciarkowski said.
Parisi also refuted Zaolino’s protest that the township is not doing enough to police Reliable Wood Products’ management of the recycling center. The mayor pointed out that the site is one of the most inspected in the state, with DeFeo visiting randomly twice a month, in addition to NJDEP and commission inspections. State law only requires the center to be inspected once a year by the NJDEP.
Regarding the leaf issue, Ciarkowski said the recycling center only accepts leaves from residents and landscapers who do work in town. Essex County public information director Anthony Puglisi said the county only drops off its leaves at its own facility in the South Mountain Reservation. While the mayor said that proof of residency is something that could be looked into, he does not believe leaf dumping by non-residents is a real issue.
“I’ve never heard anyone on the vendor’s side or residents concerned about whether it’s residents who might dump a few bags of leaves there,” Parisi said in a Nov. 6 phone interview. “I don’t know of that being a problem, and I don’t see the reason to assign the solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
And though Zaolino and Alabi both said they wished that the township would move recycling services to somewhere else, Parisi said that is not going to happen.
“The town has no intention of getting rid of the recycling center,” Parisi said. “It serves a vital need to this community, one that would be irreplaceable. So we’ll continue to stay on top of it and work with the DEP to make sure it’s compliant. But we have no intention of changing its operation other than to see continue to be in compliance.”
Still, Zaolino and Alabi said they are unhappy with the way the recycling center has intruded on their lives for virtually the entire time they have lived in West Orange. Due to the frequently-present odor, Alabi said he hardly even opens his windows. And after 15 years of complaining to the township without result, he said he is done living in West Orange.
“I just want to get out,” Alabi said in a Nov. 9 phone interview, adding that he hopes the township will buy his property if he cannot sell it because of the recycling center.
Zaolino, who said she has had chronic sinus problems ever since moving across from the center, said relocating has crossed her mind before. But she said her biggest fear is that her property value will be hurt by the center.
Whether or not she moves, Zaolino said she hopes she sees a change with how the recycling center is managed moving forward, so that she can stop complaining.
“I think they can be doing a better job, and they’re not,” Zaolino said. “I just want them to be a good neighbor.”