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st. johns cuts the cheese

It all began about the time it started getting warm enough to enjoy lunch at the pub on their outdoor patio. It was a mysterious ghost, appearing suddenly out of nowhere, an ethereal beast that drove men to their knees, weeping.

The beast? An outrageously heinous odor, the kind of funk that makes you hold your breath until you must simply inhale deeply or choose asphyxiation, so you choose to take a breath, thinking it can't be as bad as it seemed the first time and then you get another whiff and you realize that yes, yes it can. The smell of a thousand baby diapers in the midday sun. The smell of a dumpster full of rotting food shut into a dark cabinet without any ventilation. The smell of hundreds of square miles of manure compost piles.

It was the stuff of which nightmares are made, the kind of thing secret government labs spend years perfecting as a classified weapon guaranteed to engineer a quick surrender from the enemy. It was an odor of biblical proportions.

We thought at first that maybe it was just our neighborhood, that maybe something was rotting on the waterfront and was just wafting up the hillside. But as I said, we got up to the pub that day and the smell was as bad there as anywhere. So bad, in fact, that on the first 80 degree day of the year (in April), the St. Johns Pub patio was deserted. Deserted. No, you don't understand. This is the land of people who live in perpetual gray. When the sun is out, every living soul is out, too. And inside, everyone was wondering what the hell was that smell?

This continued off and on all summer. We thought we'd maybe get used to it, maybe we'd slowly acclimate and it wouldn't be so sharp, cloying, and terrifically nauseating. We went to a high school, after all, that was just across the road from a stockyard. For three years. In windy Wyoming.

But we that smell defied the laws of physics, nature, and (we would later learn) the state. We never got used to it. And judging from the way all of our neighbors went scurrying inside whenever it came through town, no one else did, either. It was like Godzilla or Mothra, this thing, terrorizing an entire community while it laid low the unsuspecting fools caught unaware.

And then, we received the following letter from Metro. [My comments are in bold.]

This is not a joke.

August 20, 2003


Dear St. Johns neighbor:

This is to notify you that trucks should soon begin hauling compost containing lentil beans [I had to re-read it, too] away from the American Compost and Recycling facility at 9707 N. Columbia Blvd. in St. Johns. Metro is requiring this action as a solution to foul odors [I think they meant to say "diabolical"] coming from the facility's composting operations. Metro has directed the company to remove the material by August 28 -- before the start of school and the Labor Day weekend. The work is likely to cause additional odors temporarily, but once completed, should end the unpleasant smells that have occurred periodically [read: pretty much every nice day you might want to spend outdoors enjoying the lovely weather] this summer.


In April, American Compost and Recycling received more than 3,500 tons of lentils. [3,500 tons?!? were they feeding the entire continent of South America?] The lentils -- a kind of bean commonly used in cooking [hahaha I love this...THANKS FOR THE BIOLOGY LESSON MR. BUREAUCRAT GUY] -- were being transported from Oregon and Washington farms to markets in South America [I guess they were feeding the entire continent of South America] when they slipped off a barge into the Columbia River. [have these people never heard of bungee cords?] American Compost and Recycling is licensed by Metro to accept only yard debris and clean wood for processing into compost. Metro initially fined the company $28,000 for accepting the lentils. The company was then allowed to try to manage the lentils on-site as part of its composting operation. However, Metro contends that the company has been unable to meet the odor- and nuisance-related standards [this has to win some kind of understatement of the year award] as it has tried to compost the spoiled lentils, and additional enforcement actions and fines have been levied. Now, Metro is requiring removal of the material to solve the odor problems.

After the lentil-containing piles are removed as directed by Metro, the odors should be eliminated. However, odors are likely to increase temporarily as the facility operator digs into the piles in the process of moving the material. [um...eww] Odors occur as a natural biological reaction when organic matter decomposes. [hee hee, another biology lesson courtesy of Metro] You may wish to shut your windows and doors during the times the odor is most noticeable. [boy, I sure wish you folks had been around to give us such helpful advice four months ago...closing the windows? what a radical concept, thank you!] Metro also is directing the facility to spray an odor neutralizer on the piles as they are moved, [too bad this didn't occur to them during that grueling 6 day heat wave of 100° temps] and to transport the material through non-residential neighborhoods at non-peak commuter hours. [who gives a crap about the commuters? they're just passing through, they're not the ones who have to suffer through the smell.... I say screw the commuters!]

As you may know, Metro regulates private solid waste processing and disposal facilities in the area. This is part of a broader responsibility for reducing and managing the region's solid waste in an effective, economical, and environmentally sound manner. Working with other governments and the private sector, Metro strives to achieve the highest standards for the operation of facilities within the Metro region's solid waste management system. This means ensuring solid waste facilities -- including the one operated by American Compost and Recycling -- protect the environment, and the health and safety of the regions residents. Metro is committed to taking action equal to these principles. [To be fair, they really were trying to solve the problem and this was kind of an odd situation. Plus, it's hard to fault the company trying to compost those lentils instead of letting them rot at the bottom of the Columbia River.]

Metro will continue to monitor the situation at American Compost and Recycling. [glad to know your crack team of odor detectives is on the case] If the problem continues, Metro may take additional enforcement action, including additional fines and the potential closure of the facility. [yikes, that seems a tad draconian...now I feel bad] If you have any questions or would like a fact sheet about this issue, please call Metro Recycling Information at (503) 234-3000. If you would like to contact American Compost and Recycling directly, [to scream at them for stinking up the joint instead of bitching at us about the smell] you may call (503) 286-0886.


    Michael Hoglund [<-- seriously? because that's...just too easy]

    Director, Solid Waste and Recycling Department

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Reader Comments (2)

One of my favorite things to read when I'm glum. Love this story (especially since I didn't experience the stench).

Aug 2, 2012 at 5:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterSister

Sister: It cracks me up that you remember this post so well and think of it so fondly. :)

Aug 4, 2012 at 12:09 AM | Registered CommenterBitty

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