In the face of numerous complaints and violations, Sunshine Canyon Landfill has organized an ‘odor patrol team’ to sniff out olfactory offenses in the Granada Hills North neighborhood. But its efforts haven’t always passed residents’ smell test.

Dennis Montano stood on a corner in Granada Hills one recent brisk morning, lifted his nose to the sky and sniffed.

“Right now, I don’t smell anything,” Montano said.

That was good news for the embattled Sunshine Canyon Landfill. The disposal site operates roughly a mile away in Sylmar but has roiled the Granada Hills North neighborhood with a potpourri of foul smells. In the face of numerous complaints and dozens of public nuisance violations, the company has organized an “odor patrol team” in an effort to improve community relations and comply with state regulations.

As a member of the company’s team, the 32-year-old Montano has found himself on the front line of a pungent conflict. Sunshine operators insist that odor patrols will help fan the quality of life downwind, but some residents charge that they are simply for show and accomplish nothing.

“As far as neighbors are concerned, it’s a sham,” said Wayde Hunter, president of North Valley Coalition of Concerned Citizens Inc., a nonprofit group that has been fighting the dump for more than two decades. “They have zero credibility in the neighborhood. If you ask anyone in the community about the team, they’ll tell you that what they’re doing is basically B.S.”

Formally launched in 2010, the patrols are intended to head off complaints by detecting problem odors early.

If an odor is sensed, the monitor notifies site staff who conduct an on-site odor survey to determine the source and identify what immediate steps can be taken to mitigate it. They check the environmental control systems for any disruptions, and sometimes contractors are called in to make temporary fixes ahead of permanent repairs, operators say.

“We want to be good neighbors,” said Patti Costa, environmental manager for the landfill, which is operated by Republic Services Inc. a Phoenix-based solid waste collection and disposal company. “We want to solve this issue. We don’t take it lightly.”

Working five-hour shifts that typically begin at 5:30 a.m. or 5:30 p.m. and cover between five and 10 miles, Montano stops at 13 locations in the Granada Hills North neighborhood.

His first location for gauging odors is in front of Van Gogh Elementary School. He uses an anemometer to determine altitude, latitude, longitude, relative humidity and the direction and speed of the wind.

On this particular morning, the wind was blowing from the north at 3.3 mph, the temperature was 55.5 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity was 23.6%.

Montano entered the information into an iPad before again taking a whiff. He then employed a “Nasal Ranger,” a portable odor detection and measuring device that resembles a bullhorn. Pressing the instrument to his nose, he inhaled a few times and twisted a dial at the end of the device, which is embedded with carbon filters. The higher the number on the dial, the more distinct the odor, Costa explained.

Montano, who used to work in inventory control for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said he applied for the odor management team job after being tipped off by a friend. He took the prerequisite “sniff test,” formally known as an Odor Sensitivity Test Kit, and passed with flying colors, Costa confirmed.

“I actually didn’t know about my nose until I interviewed and took the test,” Montano said.

But Montano isn’t the only one with a keen sense of smell.

In 2011, 1,565 odor complaints against Sunshine Canyon were lodged with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, up from 613 the year before and 310 in 2009, according to state statistics. Last year’s figure represented around 20% of all air quality complaints the agency received from operations under its jurisdiction. So far this year, at least 182 complaints have been made against the landfill, which disposes of up to 10,000 tons of trash per day on 363 acres.

The smells were primarily from rotting garbage or landfill gas — “a sickly sweet type of odor” — said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the air quality management agency.

To comply with an abatement order issued in 2010 and most recently amended in December, the landfill is taking several actions before a February deadline. Among them: instituting a robust gas collection and destruction system, including installing a temporary gas flare to destroy excess landfill gas; conducting a 12-month study to analyze potential air toxins; hiring an independent consultant to do environmental monitoring and take corrective action; and designating staff to be on call 24 hours a day to investigate and, where feasible, immediately remediate the source of odors.

The company is also taking other mitigation steps, such as installing “dust bosses” that spray a fine mist into the air to trap odor particles before they can disperse, and planting scores of oak trees to help block smells, Costa said. She urged residents to utilize a 24-hour complaints hotline.

Though the landfill operator was taking odor complaints seriously, Costa said it was possible some of the scents were caused by other non-landfill sources, such as skunks, fertilizers and sewers.

But resident Ralph Kroy scoffed at that notion. Kroy, whose house sits across from Van Gogh Elementary, said he had no doubt where the stink was coming from.

“It’s a darn nuisance,” said Kroy, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1968 and lodged dozens of odor complaints over the years. “You go outside … and oh my gosh.”

Nor was he impressed by the new odor patrols.

“They can’t collect anything,” Kroy said. “The smell is still there.”

ODOR: Complaints by residents against Sunshine Canyon have increased tenfold in two years.

(South Coast Air Quality Management)

SYLMAR – A pungent odor emanating from the Sunshine Canyon landfill over the last two years has left nearby residents holding their noses and local officials scratching their heads.

The number of complaints about foul smells from the landfill wafting over neighborhoods and schools has jumped more than tenfold in the last two years, according to state officials. More than 600 complaints were registered in 2010, compared to less than 50 in 2008.

This year since Jan. 1 alone, at least 676 complaints have been filed with the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

“How much is enough for this community?” said a frustrated Wayde Hunter, president of North Valley Coalition, a nonprofit organization which was formed more than 20 years ago.

“There’s just been an exponential increase in days when there is an odor,” he said. “I’m frantic, I just don’t know what to do.”

But the landfill’s operators and local environmental officials have yet to discover the source of the stench.

Sunshine Canyon Landfill, which takes in 9,500 tons of trash each day, is run by Republic Services, one of the largest integrated waste management companies in the United States.

“We know there is an odor issue, and that is unacceptable to us,” said Peg Mulloy, spokeswoman for Republic. “Right now, we don’t know where (the odor is) coming from. We’re focusing all our efforts on trying to find the problem.”

Mulloy said new general manager David Cieply has been hired as part of the company’s effort to bring in new people to help solve the problem at the landfill.

“The key is, we admit that there are odors and we know there is a problem,” she said. “We know people are unhappy.”

The AQMD has issued 15 violations against operators of the landfill so far this year, compared to four for the same time period in 2010.

The landfill, at 14747 San Fernando Rd., in Sylmar is about two miles north of Van Gogh Elementary School in Granada Hills, where children, parents, and teachers complain they smell a foul odor each morning until about 10 a.m.

“It usually dissipates by recess,” said Gale Gundersen, who called in a complaint to the AQMD on Thursday.

She said the increase in odors began last year.

“It’s a strong garbage smell,” she said.

The AQMD violation notices do not come with fines, but the agency in January ordered the landfill to fix the problem, said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the air-quality regulating agency.

In very rare circumstances, a landfill is ordered to cease operations, Atwood said. “We’ve received hundreds of complaints and that shows there is a problem,” Atwood said.

The Los Angeles Unified School district is documenting the problem as well. So far, the district has no accounts of students who have been sickened or hospitalized because of the odor, said John Sterritt, director of environmental health and safety for LAUSD.

“The kids are overcome by the odor, and we think that’s a really big problem,” said Bill Piazza, an environmental assessment coordinator for LAUSD.

Along with the AQMD, Los Angeles city and county officials last month formed a 90-day action plan. Landfill operators are supposed to reduce the number of trucks delivering trash during peak hours, use soil, instead of tarps, to cover the trash at the end of the day, and install several DustBoss odor control units in areas where trash is deposited.

Landfill operators also must conduct odor patrols from 6 to 10 a.m. and 6 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

The city and county formed a joint enforcement team in 2008 to supervise Sunshine Canyon. Sunshine is actually two side-by-side landfills – one on city land, one in county jurisdiction – that merged operations in 2009.

“We’re very concerned about it,” said Tony Bell, spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes the landfill. He said the county Department of Public Works has been in talks with Republic to make sure the 90-day plan of action is implemented.

While no cause is known for sure, city and county officials speculate the odor could be caused by types and quantities of trash received, methods of handling the trash, and/or a faulty landfill gas collection system among other factors.

City Councilman Greig Smith said officials are collecting all the notices of violation as well as other information, in case legal action against the operators of the landfill becomes necessary.

“We can order them to close the doors which is in our purview,” Smith said. “The onus is on their backs to perform. It’s taken so ridiculously long.”