For Some, Compost Plant Will Never Wash Whose Nose Really Knows? Critics’ ‘Hypervigilance’ Plays A Role, Say Plant Monitors Who Think Conditions Have Improved
It’s been a war of the noses at the Colbert composting plant.
Residents near the north Spokane facility say the compost unleashes a steady noxious, even toxic stench that hurts property values and creates a public nuisance.
Sniffers from state and county agencies claim the smells aren’t that bad.
They and some residents agree the site smells much better than a year ago, when it opened under a contract with O.M. Scott and Sons.
So whose nose is right?
The answer, say some who’ve witnessed similar battles over bad smells, is everyone.
Many of the 180 or so affected Colbert residents have likely placed their noses on maximum alert because of their dislike for the compost, say people who’ve monitored the plant.
“I think residents have become sensitized. Now, any time they smell any bad odor, they get upset about it,” said Bob Bocksch, chairman of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee.
In the language of psychologists, some Colbert critics may be victims of hyper-vigilance, the condition when a person’s senses are acutely primed against outside threats.
The same term might apply to City Council members, who last week reached exhaustion on the Colbert issue and voted to begin plans to shut down the plant.
The difficulty of finding a political solution is matched by a scientific failure to measure or explain why some odors gag us while others mildly annoy.
“With smells, you find you end up more in the area of psychology and emotions,” said Ron Edgar, an official with the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.
Critics liken the smell to that of sour milk or old tennis shoes. Bocksch, a retired Whitworth College chemistry professor, said he’s found its odor to be “vinegary” at times this summer.
Edgar said similar cases of public outrage have erupted over odors from rendering plants and asphalt producers in Spokane County.
But he’s sympathetic to the residents’ complaints.
“These things make people feel helpless, largely because it’s something you can’t see or quantify,” he said.
People also tend to feel more sensitive about any outside threat - odors, noise or road dust - when it affects their immediate home, said Spokane psychologist John Lloyd.
“Psychologically, you’re talking about people’s sense of safety, security and comfort,” said Lloyd. That’s the case of two people both about to be given a series of electrical shocks. One person is told he’s about to receive the shock; the other has no idea that will happen.Results suggest the person being told ahead of time feels - or reports feeling - more pain from the same shock as the person who has no advance warning.
Emotions and stress may play a part in Colbert residents’ reactions, but many insist the odors are real and are more than an irritant.
“The site is a health risk for the vast majority of the residents near it,” said Colbert resident Chuck Morrison, a Spokane family doctor.
Morrison has compiled data that he argues show a “clustering” of skin rash and respiratory problems due directly to airborne substances released by the compost site.
A number of Colbert residents disagree with that opinion.
“Whenever some people smell odors that bother them, the compost site gets blamed for it,” said Paula Davis.
Davis, who lives about 600 feet from the compost site, said she saw evidence of hypersensitivity this week when several Colbert residents visited the plant to test a number of products supposed to reduce odors.
A resident who’s been a regular critic of the site was asked to sniff a shovelful of compost material that was treated with a deodorizer.
Two others had just done the same, Davis said, without noticing anything.
“After she smelled the material, she promptly walked away and threw up,” said Davis.”She’s like a lot of people,” continued Davis. “She’s decided it’s a menace and isn’t about to see anything else.”