When doing the right thing stinks – and what Minneapolis is doing about it


Waiting for the kids to board the bus at Cityview School, the driver smells the stench of barnyard in the air. Neighbors notice it, too, when whipping along the I-94 freeway near Dowling with the car windows open. It’s been several weeks now. Where is it coming from, and is anyone doing anything about it? 

It’s the smell of rotting yard waste; too much water, too little air.  It’s been a warm weather phenomenon since late last summer and got worse this summer due to many factors. Short term relief is coming within a week, and the long term solution is slow in coming, but is also moving along, according to people at the odor’s source and public officials. They’ve been working on solutions since last fall.

Organic Technologies, Inc. (OTI), 3750 Washington Ave. N., is the contractor handling the transfer of Minneapolis residents’ yard wastes. Material is trucked to the yard, a former Koch oil refinery, down in a hollow below Washington Avenue. There, the plastic bags are broken open, larger pieces of wood are removed by hand, and the rest goes through a mechanical sorter at least two times before the various elements get trucked to their destinations-a composting facility in Columbus (Anoka County) for the crumbly organic stuff, and HERC, the Hennepin County garbage burner, for the plastics, woods and other debris.

The basic formula for breaking down yard wastes into compost, which improves texture and adds nutrients when mixed with dirt, involves having some “greens” (nitrogen rich, grass), “browns” (carbon rich, leaves/wood), enough air and not too much water.

Greg Austin, one of OTI’s managing partners, told NorthNews, “It’s been a rainy summer. Wet grass clippings may have been sitting up to a week when they get here, bagged up with no air and no carbons. Open it up, you smell rot. People say it smells like a barnyard. Well, it’s anaerobic, the same thing that comes out of a cow, so of course it smells like that. Sometimes we get bags of apples; they really reek!”

Does transportation cost that much? Why not just ship it all to Columbus to sort there? “It is very costly,” Austin said. “And we can’t cross county lines with the wood, due to Emerald Ash Borer.” Austin said the ban on transporting wood out of the county came with no notice; officials showed up one day mid-summer 2009 and said “no more.” It took until June 24 to get approval and an account set up at HERC to take the non-compostables there.

A truck arrives at OTI and dumps a load from a suburb (about 25 percent of OTI’s business is from other than the Minneapolis contract). It’s grass in the compostable paper bags. It’s already started decomposing, and steam rises from the pile. A front-end loader moves the material around to give it more air. Austin said the compostable bags can actually cause the material to be too tightly packed; the plastic bags have more air spaces between them. At no time does the process get so hot as to start a fire, he said.

The layout of OTI’s site, which they rent from the city’s River Services, Inc., the terminal operator, contributes to the odor problem. Three huge tanks and other infrastructure from the old Koch operation, due to be removed, not only take up space but obstruct water flow, causing ponding. “The water is the problem,” Austin said. Organics sitting on water will not have enough air, and the ammonia smell will start again.

Randy Kiser, supervising environmentalist for the solid waste operations and the energy conservation unit at Hennepin County Environmental Services confirmed that OTI’s first transfer trailer load of plastic and sticks arrived there June 24. “It occupies a lot of our tipping floor so we ask them to come later in the day.” Because there are other “industrial waste” sources coming in, and the burner needs a variety of garbage, they’re limiting OTI to one, maybe two, such loads a day. At that rate, though, the backlog will probably be cleared within a week or two.

Carrie Flack, a Senior Project Coordinator for the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development department, said that as of May 28 the Minneapolis City Council approved demolition of the old tanks, and the new lease agreement is awaiting signature by OTI. OTI will pay up front for what’s considered a capital improvement, and then the rent attributed to the additional usable land will count against the demolition cost, like prepaying rent.

There is not yet a new site water management plan, as the engineers will have to wait to see what’s left after the tanks are removed. Austin said he hopes the tanks can be dismantled in the next couple of months. “It will help for fall when we need space” as all the leaves come in.

While no composting per se goes on at this relatively small site, the trucks that pick up the material for Columbus can bring back finished compost for distribution, “almost free, as part of our contract” to community gardens. A load went out Thursday the 24th to the Powderhorn East Community Garden.

“We’re trying to be good neighbors. We’re about as green as you can do it,” Austin said. “We try not to do certain things when the wind’s blowing the wrong way.”

The City’s Environmental Services Manager Lisa Smestad said her department ordered OTI to submit plans (described above) for remedying the “nuisance odor.” She said that while there were only five complaints to her office directly, “people call their council members, we’ve heard from them, too.” The department has a measurement instrument that showed the odors meet the test of “nuisance.” When NorthNews called 3-1-1, the city’s centralized complaint system, more than one operator said they had fielded other calls.