Shawnee refuses to be a 'stinky city'; city council tables landfill special use permit

As trucks dump load after load of garbage and debris into the active cell at the landfill, a corps of heavy machine operators work continuously to level and bury the trash.

After recently receiving a massive volume of odor complaints, the Shawnee City Council decided to take action against Deffenbaugh Industries by not taking action.

At its meeting Monday evening, the city council tabled a special use permit to allow land filling operations at Interstate 435 and Holliday Drive, in order for there to be an independent odor study conducted.

Dan Pflumm and Eric Jenkins were the two council members who voted against tabling the permit, insisting it should be passed. But the majority of council members agreed they weren’t comfortable renewing the SUP when the odor was so blatantly foul.

Since January, nearly 200 odor complaints have been filed with the city, with 79 of them being from the past month and a half alone.

A few of those complaints were even filed by Mayor Michelle Distler, who told representatives from Deffenbaugh straightforwardly, “We don’t want our city to stink.”

Jim Murray, the general manager for Deffenbaugh’s landfills and recycling facility, told the council the company believes the odor is due to wet yard waste.

A few years ago, Johnson County banned its yard waste from being dumped in Deffenbaugh’s Shawnee landfill, Murray stated, which forced the company to establish a new composting area on the south end of the property, near Johnson Drive.

A heavier volume of yard waste, along with all the recent storms, created the offensive odor, he said.

Murray added that a few weeks ago, he requested a variance from the Johnson County Commission, to allow direct deposit of yard waste into the landfill, to cut down on odor, but the board turned him down.

Distler told Murray that if an independent odor study confirms Deffenbaugh’s theory, it should help strengthen the company’s argument against the county to allow yard waste into the landfill.

City Manager Carol Gonzales estimated that an independent odor study could take 90 to 120 days to be conducted.

Councilman Pflumm said he saw no reason to delay approving the permit while the odor study took place, because the council could always rescind it at any time.

But several council members disagreed wholeheartedly, with some arguing that to do so would be offensive to residents.

“For me, to extend the special use permit, what I’m basically telling the people who have been complaining to me for months is, ‘I’m not really listening to you, I’m just going to go ahead and extend this,’” said Councilman Jeff Vaught. “It’s not going to matter. Deffenbaugh is still going to go ahead with their operations. I just want people to know we’re taking this serious and we’re looking at it.”

Councilman Brandon Kenig said he believes conducting an odor study first is vital, because the city still doesn’t know what is causing the odor.

“So far, we only have speculation,” he pointed out.

A few members of the public took the podium at the meeting to express their frustration to the council.

“The smell is so bad, it knocks you over,” said Vicki Baxter, of Shawnee. “Some days, I can’t even sit on my front porch. This is a very serious problem. This is our home.”

Shawnee resident Michael Owens concurred.

“It’s just awful,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a chemical smell, sometimes we see clouds of dust. It’s embarrassing when we have people over to the house. I think we need to do something and do it now.”

Representing 800 upset residents was Mike Olson, the mayor of the affluent community Lake Quivira, which sits near the landfill.

Residents of Lake Quivira enjoy an outdoor lifestyle filled with golf, hiking and boating, he said. In recent weeks, he's received complaints nearly every day as he walks around the lake. In fact, people have been holding their noses and making choking sounds when they see him walk by, he added, in dismay.

“If it had not been for me taking some of these bullets, your phones would have been ringing off the hook,” Olson told the council. “If you had got every complaint that I got, your people would have been out there 24/7.”

Memorial Day was one of the worst-smelling weekends yet, he added.

“If we have that experience on Fourth of July weekend, when our population goes from about 1,200 to 5,000, I probably won’t be alive and your council will be packed at the following meeting,” he said, dryly.

Near the end of the meeting, another resident asked Murray what the public could do to help make the smell go away.

He replied that since Deffenbaugh believes the smell is wet yard waste, if residents want to see — or smell — a change, they should reach out to the Board of County Commissioners to encourage the ban to be rescinded.

Curtis Holland, legal counsel for Deffenbaugh, told the council that while the company wishes the permit could have been renewed that night, it is comfortable with an independent odor study being conducted in the near future.

But it really feels the issue might resolve itself.

“As the weather dries out, you’ll see the wet yard waste smell will decrease and you might see less calls,” Holland told the governing body.

After an independent odor study is completed, the permit question will go before the council again at a later date.

This isn't the first time the landfill has drawn a boatload of complaints from Shawnee residents. In winter 2015, the city logged hundreds of resident reports of extensive odor coming from the landfill. Mitigation efforts had eliminated most of those issues by April, the company reported at the time.

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