When Paula Larson moved to Shakopee in 2001, her house overlooked a cornfield. Now that land is host to a large compost facility where discarded food and yard waste is turned into a soil additive.
It’s where the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) seven years ago located its Organics Recycling Facility (ORF), creating compost, grinding and drying wood, and mining sand and gravel. After it opened, some neighbors said the stench rivaled that of a dumpster. They said that homes and cars were covered in dust, and machinery noise sounded at all hours.
A group called Neighbors vs. the ORF now wants the tribe to address the odor problem. They cite worries about property values, the inability to spend time outside and health concerns from breathing foul air.
“I don’t want to drive them away or start a fight, but it’s right in the middle of a neighborhood. It’s gross,” said Larson, one of the group’s leaders.
Dozens of Shakopee residents gathered Monday in hopes that officials with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will facilitate a meeting with tribal officials to address concerns.
“We’re all embarrassed and ashamed that our city is called Stinkopee,” said resident Melanie Smith.
Staffers at the compost facility said they’re open to receiving odor complaints and have a system set up online to record them.
“People think that we don’t care. ... That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Steve Albrecht, the facility’s operations administrator. “We also think we’re providing a really valuable service.”
Albrecht said the ORF monitors odor daily with a device called the Nasal Ranger, and immediately covers food waste with material like leaves to mask the smell.
The tribe would prefer to find a new site, he said, but the process would probably take a couple of years since it would have to find a large parcel that’s zoned industrial and then get the necessary permits. A second option would be to upgrade technology at the current site.
On Monday, residents said they doubted that the facility would move and that they’ve heard it before. “They’re moving quite often,” Larson said.
‘A sweet, earthy odor’
Large-scale composting facilities are in short supply in the metro area. Only two exist — the Shakopee facility and the Specialized Environmental Technologies site in Rosemount — despite the state’s plans in the coming decade to recycle considerably more food waste and other organics.
The tribe runs the compost facility as a for-profit business, but it’s also “the right thing to do,” Albrecht said. “The Dakota people, part of their value system is protecting the earth.”
The Shakopee facility took in 64,300 tons of organic material in 2018, including 12,200 tons of food waste. The rising percentage of food waste includes a creamery’s discarded cheese and waste cucumbers from Gedney.
Environmental technician Erin Longmore described the smell as “a sweet, earthy odor” similar to fermentation. “It’s a smell people haven’t ever smelled before,” she said.
Given its nature, compost is going to smell, Albrecht said. But sometimes when people think they smell compost, it’s actually a dairy farm or the wastewater plant, he said.
Larson was incredulous about such claims. “It’s not the pig farm, it’s not the [Canterbury Park] track,” she said. “My favorite thing that the ORF tried to tell me is that it was Shutterfly.”
Other residents voiced their own vexations. Cal TenEyck said he’s concerned about property values.
“A buyer comes out and smells that crap, they’re not buying,” he said.
Gary Anderson said the odor affects his three kids who have attended nearby Eagle Creek Elementary School. “I was told specifically that they were not let out for recess, multiple times, because of the air quality,” he said.
Shakopee has little authority over the ORF, said City Council Member Matt Lehman. He pointed out that the compost site offers benefits to residents, including free yard waste disposal. He said the tribe has made serious efforts to mitigate the smell, such as setting up odor monitoring stations. But “stinky days” still happen, he said.
Larson said she’s been in contact with EPA officials, who told her to come up with ideas about how the ORF could be a better neighbor. So far, suggestions include providing a calendar showing when the facility will churn its piles, having the compost rotated at night, assigning someone to monitor complaints 24 hours a day and halting operations on weekends and holidays.
“We just want to be able to live in our homes like we did before they came,” Larson said.