Features & Columns
Social Media Amplify
Milpitas Odor Complaints
Steve Weller has no great stink story to tell. There was no dramatic realization. He doesn't remember the hour or the place. Upon moving to Milpitas 13 years ago, the software engineer gradually grew accustomed to the odor—that methane musk that haunts the city.
"From where I'm situated, it's clearly a dump smell," he says. "You grow used to it. You learn to treat it like any other nuisance, like traffic noise."
But just like any other nuisance, people complain about it online. Since the advent of Twitter, victims of the Milpitas stink have taken to broadcasting their reactions to it in 140 characters or less. And Weller has taken it upon himself to curate those thoughts under a single Twitter account: @MilpitasStinks.
Every day, he re-shares another gem. "Milpitas hella staaank." "Milpitas smells like booty." Or, "I'd like to thank Milpitas for smelling like ass."
The tweets come in waves, Weller's noticed. On a particularly hot day, he'll have plenty of material to re-tweet.
"When there's a stink, a person's first instinct is to pick up their phone and tweet about it," Weller says. "It's modern-day human nature."
The Big Stink
Milpitas has grappled with odor complaints for decades—a problem that has escalated as the population has grown, along with the increasing ubiquity of social media. Eventually, in 2011, the city created an odor control hotline—(408) 586-2727, you're welcome—to document the number and frequency of complaints. But thousands of people opt to gripe about the Milpitas stink on social media, data that goes untracked by the city even though it largely shapes the reputation of this two-exit town in the northeastern corner of Santa Clara Valley. Searching the web for "Milpitas odor" turns up hundreds of conversations on Twitter, Facebook and a slew of real estate forums that warn people of the city's stink and remind them to turn those car vents to "re-circulate" while driving through.
"Milpitas smells like everyone farted at the same time," comedian D.L. Hughley once joked during a performance at the San Jose Improv.
The smells that permeate Milpitas actually originate from outside the city. That whiff of sewage comes from the San Jose/Santa Clara Wastewater Treatment Plant, a nearly 60-year-old facility that sun-bakes solid sludge in open-air drying lagoons. The process saves energy, but reeks. Prevailing winds typically carry the odors eastward, into Milpitas, as anyone who's shopped at the Great Mall has no doubt noticed.
The trash smell, depending on whom you ask, comes from a dump by Dixon Landing and I-880—the Newby Island Landfill. Landfill owners Republic Services insist otherwise—that they capture the methane before it wafts away and sell it as energy to the wastewater plant. Gil Cheso, a community liaison for Republic, says people only think the smell comes from the landfill because news stories suggest as much and the city advertises the odor problem every month at council meetings and online. Plus, it's more visible—a lot of people don't even know the wastewater plant exists, Cheso says. They smell a stink, see the landfill on the horizon and complain that it's the culprit, he says. San Jose, Milpitas and surrounding cities dump mostly household trash into the 342-acre garbage island, which has at least a couple decades of life left. The smell of decomposing waste will continue to emanate from this levee-bordered trash mass for a while longer. Maybe by then, Milpitians will have stopped bitching about it—or resign themselves to the fact that, just like residents of any old dairy town in the Central Valley, their town is doomed to stink in perpetuity.
"When I have kids, they probably won't notice the smell," one Reddit user muses. "And their kids' kids won't smell it either, passing down an olfactory immunity that'll spawn a generation of superior humans."
Meanwhile, there is some movement to lessen the smell. Milpitas is litigating against the proposed expansion of Newby Island, which aims to raise its allowable height by 95 feet, challenging the adequacy of an environmental review by the city of San Jose. Republic Services says expansion won't worsen the smell, despite the height increase making way for another 15 million cubic yards of trash (enough to fill 4,750 Olympic-size swimming pools).
"We're pushing for San Jose to expedite some improvements at the wastewater plant, maybe to have them cover the lagoons so the water isn't drying outdoors, but we probably won't see that materialize for another several years or more," says Milpitas City Councilman Armando Gomez.
Milpitas residents met with city officials early last year to talk about odor control measures—all of which lie outside the city's control. At least residents could help the city collect data about the smells, Gomez notes. At a council meeting last spring, Mayor Jose Esteves told constituents to keep reporting odor complaints to the city hotline. Vice Mayor Althea Polanski suggested the city refine its mobile app to collect more complaints. Anyone with an iPad or iPhone can download the "My Milpitas" app. Weller suggests they also check out his Twitter feed.
Though it's clearly a pain, a strong smell doesn't necessarily reflect an air quality violation. It's often more a quality-of-life issue outside the realm of public enforcement, says Aaron Richardson, a spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
"There's not much we can do," says Richardson, whose agency redirects Milpitas odor complaints back to the city. "If it's an odor that creates enough of a widespread nuisance in the community, it can become an air quality violation. But right now, we're not currently receiving an inordinate amount of complaints."
And both facilities—the waste treatment plant and the landfill—are operating under their permit conditions, he adds. The water treatment facility is working on ways to capture the noxious smell of processing 110 million gallons of sewer water a day, though those improvements remain several years down the line. But it is an improvement, considering an older iteration of San Jose's master plan for the plant totally glossed over the odor problem. San Jose's Environmental Services Department added the odor control measures after enough people in the community complained about the smell. Of the $300 million it will cost to renovate the plant's drying process, up to $20 million will go toward odor control.
Milpitas has only to wait another generation or two before these odor woes subside. The dump will be full and the wastewater plant modernized with whatever smell-stopping technologies it decides to install, which will likely convert the plant to a covered biosolids facility instead of open-air drying facility. Then, Weller will finally be able to keep his windows open on a warm summer day.
"Eventually the dump will close and get covered over," he says. "The ultimate solution to deal with the smell is just to wait it out or move. Until then, people will keep talking about the smell, which to me is very entertaining."