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Milk plant still struggling with foul odor problem Neighbors, Md. losing patience with dairy co-op


Neighbors of a milk processing plant in North Laurel who have been raising a stink over the operation hope the air will be cleared soon.

Foul odors from the Maryland-Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative plant have forced some to seal window and doors with towels and linen.

The smell also has led state officials to warn the plant's operators to solve the problem, or face fines.

"It really stinks," said Robert Souder, a 71-year-old resident of the Laurel area. "It actually makes you sick."

Added Kim Smith, who lives in the Leishear Village community across the street from the plant: "I can't have anybody over my house. It's embarrassing."

Wednesday night, operators of the 37-year-old plant -- part of a cooperative of 1,220 Maryland and Virginia dairy farmers -- asked neighbors to hold their noses a little longer while the machinery needed to eliminate the odors is installed.

Meeting with residents at Hammond Elementary School, plant operators said the odor has been unusually foul recently because of failed equipment at the plant's waste treatment center. They insisted that they are trying to correct the problem.

That was good enough for state Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Republican who represents the North Laurel area and who conducted Wednesday night's meeting. He called for another session between plant officials and residents in about eight weeks -- enough time, operators say, to install new equipment and make other adjustments to eliminate the smell.

"The milk plant has been around for a long time," Mr. Madden told a group of about 40 residents and plant and state officials at the Wednesday meeting. "They want to be a good neighbor."

The milk plant, on a 236-acre site off Leishear Road, between Gorman Road and Route 216, produces butter, condensed skim milk and nonfat dry milk. As many as 75 trucks a day -- each holding up to 5,500 gallons of milk -- deliver to the plant Monday through Friday. The number rises to as many as 100 trucks a day on weekends. The plant operates every day.

Waste usually is dumped in the Hammond Branch, a stream that flows into the Patuxent River, or sprayed over the milk plant's grassy fields. In recent months, operators said they have been producing a more solid waste substance they plan to give to farmers as fertilizer.

The odor problem began in July when a waste treatment plant air brush stopped working. The brush blows oxygen into a pool, helping bacteria break down the milk waste, a process that eliminates odors.

A backup system didn't blow enough oxygen into the pool to stop odors.

At Wednesday's meeting, officials blamed the equipment problems on misinformation from consultants.

"They just wanted to sell us equipment," said William C. King, manager of the manufacturing division for the cooperative.

Mr. King told residents that it would take about three to five weeks to install the equipment the plant operators believe will fix the problem. "We do want to be a good neighbor," he said.

Added George Walgrove, general manager for the cooperative: "We're going to work on this until it's taken care of."

If the the odor problem isn't resolved soon, Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) officials said, they will cite the cooperative for violating air pollution standards.

Fines start at $1,000 a day, said Dave Lyons, acting division chief for MDE's enforcement division. If the plant is taken to court over the violations, it could face $10,000 fines each day until the problem is fixed. And if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency becomes involved, the plant could be fined $25,000 a day.

Mr. Lyons said MDE is negotiating a time limit for the milk plant to bring its operation into compliance, even if it means "rebuilding the whole plant."

The plant has never been cited for emission violations. Earlier this year, it was cited for operating a dry milk-making machine without a license, but plant officials applied for and received that license this summer.

Meanwhile, residents continue to deal with the odor.

Sandra Cronk, who lives in the nearby Canterbury Riding community, said she tried covering her windows with bath towels and blankets to keep the smell out of her house.

"It was terrible," Ms. Cronk said. "The blankets on the windows needed to be washed" because of the smell.

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