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Summer ripened fight over Evanston waste station

It was a smelly summer on the west side of Evanston — so much so that some residents are determined to run the culprit out of town.

This summer, they launched a website and protested outside the Veolia Waste Transfer Station on Church Street to ratchet up pressure on the company. The objectors say Veolia’s three-acre lot is too small for what it does, and that the site deters local development. But Veolia officials say the new hostilities are really about the neighborhood’s gentrification. They also say new homeowners are scapegoating the company for the drop in home values that the housing bubble created.

“When I first moved here, I don't recall smelling it that frequently,” said Kristen White, “but now all of the time when I drive by, I smell it.” White has been living in her Evanston home, half a mile away from the transfer station, for eight years. “People have been complaining for decades, but nothing has happened,” she said. “Now, I think there is a critical mass of people who are complaining consistently.”

The complaints are mostly about the smell, but residents also have other grievances. Everyday, garbage trucks go in and out of the station to dump their waste hauls onto a huge pile of trash in a hangar-like facility, then leave to continue their collections. Veolia then loads that garbage onto larger, enclosed trucks to ship to landfills the same day. Neighbors say all the truck activity is noisy, and that the site has brought rats to the neighborhood.

White herself helped corral the anti-Veolia cohort, and she estimates that there are about ten people consistently involved in the effort. Last year, they started encouraging residents to call Evanston’s citizen support hotline at 311 with complaints whenever they smelled a bad odor from the station.

“If there's a certain number of people who call in, then the city sends a health worker out,” explained White. “If that person smells it as well, they can issue a citation.” White says this will build a history of complaints against the company.

It seems to be working. In November 2010, the Evanston Health Department hired a full-time city inspector simply to handle the volume of complaints about the Veolia station. The inspector visits the site daily, and this summer started issuing citations against the station for “Strong Garbage Odor.” Between June and early September the city issued five such citations. Veolia has paid for two of them, for a total of $375, and the others continue to wind their way through the adjudication process.

This summer, Evanston also reaffirmed a “tonnage fee” that it began imposing on Veolia last December. It charges Veolia $2 for each ton of trash that goes into the station, which currently takes in about 500 tons a day. Veolia has passed the cost on to trash hauling companies that bring their waste to the station, but it has notified Evanston that it will sue over this. In addition, Evanston has asked the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for jurisdiction over two site modifications to the station. Veolia wants to widen the driveway that trash trucks pull into, and replace a single large folding door to its trash holding facility with four smaller doors. Ironically, while many neighbors oppose these changes, Veolia says they’re intended to improve safety and mitigate odor.

From Veolia’s standpoint, Evanston’s actions and the surge in neighbors’ hostility has felt like a pile-on, says Melanie Williams, Community and Government Relations Manager for Veolia’s Central Region.

“We’ve definitely put money, a great deal of money and time and effort, trying to be responsive to what some of the things were being mentioned,” said Williams.

She says the station installed a new misting system and a ceiling charcoal filter in the holding facility to neutralize the odor. “We’ve done a sound study,” added Williams. “It’s really to find out what the decibel levels are and what the impacts are.” Williams said the company changed some of the equipment to create more white noise at the station. The company has also hired a landscaper to nurture some greenery between the station and the new Church Street Village condominium complex immediately to the east.

Williams attributes most of the tension to the residents of that townhome complex. Veolia’s been in the neighborhood since 1984, says Williams. “Nothing’s changed over here,” she said, “but there’s certainly been a very real real estate crisis.”

Williams says the new neighbors may be frustrated that they bought their homes for more than they’re worth now — and blaming Veolia for the drop in value. “The sale of many of them are still vacant,” said Williams. “I understand there are some financial issues with the ones that are remaining, of the condos, and I think that some of the folks probably paid $100,000 more than they could sell them for today.”

The neighborhood to the west of the facility looks quite different, with older homes, some empty with boarded-up windows and doors. Residents there say they notice the smell, too, and they agree that it got worse this summer than before. “Like, we had to close the windows,” said Floyd Gibert. “It was horrible. Horrible.”

Devon Lemond says the station is noisy and smells bad, but he’s never complained to city or state authorities. “Everybody talks about it,” he said, “but we just live with it.” Still, he credits Veolia with regularly sending cleaning people to his street to clean up litter that’s blown over.

Many residents west of the station say they wouldn’t mind if the station left the neighborhood, but it’s not something they’re fighting for. In fact, Jasmine Blankman says she didn’t know there was a waste transfer station during most of the year that she’s lived in her home nearby. She figured it out when summer came, though. “The days it’s really, really hot, you can smell it,” said Blankman. “I don’t understand why they built the condos next to a garbage place,” Blankman added, referring to the Church Street Village complex. “If you don’t want to smell it, why build there?”

With the passing of summer, the heated debate may simmer down. But Veolia’s suiting up for its lawsuit, and Kristen White says her grassroots group has enlisted counsel to explore legal strategies that residents can take to oust the company. In addition, White says they’re going to look at whether Northwestern University has been dumping garbage at the station. By the time next summer rolls around, the neighborhood could be in for a much messier fight.

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