Stink, stank, stunk: Has Juneau’s landfill been stinkier than usual, or is it the Grinch?

The view from the top of Juneau’s landfill in November 2019. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that landfills are smelly, and Juneau’s is no exception.

But lately, neighbors say it’s been extra stinky.

A landfill might seem like just a big pile of, well, trash. And it is. But there’s actually some cool stuff going on in there.

As more and more garbage gets layered on top, it compacts everything below. Bacteria start to chow down on organic material like food waste and lawn clippings, causing them to break down. And, they love moisture.

“It biodegrades much more quickly when it’s wet,” said Doug Buteyn, environmental program manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s solid waste program. “There are landfills in the Lower 48 that have allowances to actually pump water into the landfill for that very same purpose.”

Obviously, Juneau’s landfill doesn’t need extra water pumped in. Especially not this year. In fact, our rainy environment speeds up the whole process.

As the wet, hot trash cooks down inside, it produces methane and sulfur — that’s the really stinky stuff — and it needs somewhere to go.

Usually, at Juneau’s landfill, it’s burned off. If you’re visiting, you’ll notice metal pipes sticking out of the ground — those are hooked up to a burner and that neutralizes the smell.

But that’s not happening as consistently right now, and neighbors are noticing.

“Luckily, it doesn’t blow towards our neighborhood very often, but when it does, it’s overwhelming,” said Shawn Wille. “It’s so stinky, you don’t want to be outside.”

Wille lives in the nearby Eagles Edge Subdivision, across Lemon Creek from the landfill.

“I’ve seen kids at the playground just go home … and just wait for it to pass,” Wille said.

It usually doesn’t hang around for too long, but it’s been showing up more than usual for the last few months.

“I don’t think it’s probably a health issue or anything, but it’s definitely unpleasant,” he said.

There are a few reasons why the landfill smells worse. For one, ‘tis the season.

“The inversions especially are strong in the winter,” said Buteyn. “They help to hold the gas, and anything else, close to the ground. So that’s really a big factor at this time of year.”

Another factor is that Waste Management — the Texas-based company that operates the landfill — is upgrading its gas collection system, so parts of it have been shut down recently.

Landfill Manager Eric Vance wrote in an email that they shut off portions of the network while upgrading it over the last two months.

They’re almost done with the project, which should improve the system overall. But he wrote that it might take a few weeks to get everything back to normal.

Until then, neighbors in the surrounding area will just have to deal. Buteyn says they’ve heard from a few people this year.

“We can act as an intermediary, and we do get some complaints,” Buteyn said. “We don’t get a lot.”

The city operates a recycling center on the site but otherwise doesn’t have any say in how it’s run.

Neither do neighbors like Wille. He said he’s talked to Waste Management in the past about the smell.

“That’s about it, not much we can do, besides up and move,” he said.

Like any landfill, Juneau’s is not bottomless.

The 20-year lifespan estimated in 2019 is counting down.

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