A foul odor seeping into some houses in the Coleman District is being blamed by residents for a series of ailments plaguing about 20 people who live in the neighborhood just south of Fort Dodge.
Recurring headaches, sore throats and a burning sensation in the eyes have been reported. The root cause of the problems, Coleman District residents say, is wastewater called leachate that's being pumped from the nearby regional landfill and into the sanitary sewers of their neighborhood.
Robert Pingel Jr., who lives in a house at the south end of the district, said the smell and the illnesses didn't exist until the North Central Iowa Regional Solid Waste Agency started pumping the leachate into the sanitary sewers in 2010.
-Messenger photo by Bill Shea
Robert Pingel Jr. replaces a manhole cover on South 15th Street in the Coleman District. He had opened the manhole to see if any leachate from the regional landfill was flowing through the sanitary sewer.
Pingel said that since then residents have complained to the solid waste agency and the state Department of Natural Resources, but they haven't received any relief.
''They say they're going to work with us, but they haven't done anything,'' he said.
''This is what we have to live with,'' he added. ''We pay taxes like everyone else. What's the point of paying taxes if we can't even be in our homes?''
However, Cindy Turkle, interim director of the North Central Iowa Regional Solid Waste Agency, said it's the Coleman District residents who have been uncooperative.
"They would not allow anyone into their houses," Turkle said Friday. "No one can verify that there is such an odor."
She added that her agency has been working with residents in the Coleman District for the past two months.
"We've been doing numerous activities that would minimize any odor that might potentially be there and have worked with them to try and find the source of the odor," she said. "They have been uncooperative."
Turkle said the agency even offered to help pay for smoke testing to determine what the source of the problem is.
"To smoke test, we have to have permission of the sewer district and the residents living there," she said. "We cannot do that without their permission."
Until the residents do allow officials into their homes, Turkle said there's nothing more that can be done.
The "alleged odor," as Turkle referred to it, may be caused by the mechanical systems in the residents' homes. She said one resident who did allow them into their home had that issue.
"They dug up their basement floor and found they did not have a trap, which is a violation of the building code," Turkle said. "That would also be a contributor to any odors, whether it's landfill leachate or domestic sewage."
She added that it's possible sump pumps might also be causing the problem.
Jack Bradley, who has been contracted with the Webster County Environmental Health Department, said that's also preventing health officials from finding out what's causing the headaches and irritants.
"We really don't have anything to go on as far as any further health hazard," Bradley said, adding his department doesn't have the equipment to find the source of what's causing the illnesses.
At the same time, he said the department is taking the Coleman District residents' concerns seriously.
"They have health concerns, and we are respectful of those health concerns," Bradley said.
Officials of the Department of Natural Resources checked the area on June 28 and didn't find anything that would lead to enforcement action, according to department spokesman Kevin Baskins.
''We really didn't see anything that would violate state code,'' he said.
Baskins added that the department does not have the authority to regulate odors.
Water and sanitary sewer service in the Coleman District is provided by a utilities district, which in turn gets the water and the wastewater treatment service from the city of Fort Dodge.
Leachate is the liquid that results after water trickles down through the accumulated trash in the landfill.
In 2010, the solid waste agency entered an agreement with the utilities district that allows it to pump leachate into the sanitary sewers for a fee of $300 a month. That agreement remains in effect until January 2015.
When the pumping started, the smell followed, district residents say. After discussions with Mike Grell, the former director of landfill operations, they concluded that the stench was the result of the leachate pumping, according to Pingel. He said the odor was observed only at times when Grell said leachate pumping was going on.
According to Pingel, Grell arranged to have the leachate removed by a tanker truck. However, that practice was halted.
A phone number provided for Grell led to a message saying the phone number had been temporarily disconnected.
The stink, the headaches and the sore throats have continued. Some residents claim that on hot summer days the smell is so bad in their houses that they have to stay outside until 8 p.m.
Potential solutions, according to Pingel and other residents, include bypassing the Coleman District with a new sewer line to carry the leachate, hauling the leachate away in tanker trucks or treating it at the landfill before it's pumped into the sewers.
Peter Kaspari contributed to this report.