Neighbors raise a stink over plan to expand composting operation near Ashland tourism spot

November 5, 2017

ASHLAND, Neb. — Controversy is swirling over a composting operation near the tourism attractions at the Interstate 80 interchange that leads to Mahoney State Park.

Some area residents, and the owners of the Quarry Oaks Golf Club, say allowing Soil Dynamics to significantly increase the amount of yard and food waste it composts raises the possibility of foul odors in an area known for attracting tourists, not refuse from lawns and Omaha restaurants.

“We don’t want to have people trying to play golf with the stench of food waste in the air,” said Lincoln attorney Shannon Doering, who represents Quarry Oaks.

Critics, including residents of the adjacent Horseshoe Lake cabin development, emphasize that they don’t oppose composting operations, just locating one in a tourism corridor.

Andy Harpenau, founder of Soil Dynamics, said he’s been composting yard waste at the site since 2011, and food waste since 2013, with no “legitimate” complaints about odors or truck traffic.

Harpenau, who also operates Gretna Sanitation, said that he’s seeing increased demand for composting yard and food waste, and that his operation is located in a secluded former rock quarry that will never be a tourist attraction.

Where else could you put such an operation, he asked.

“Until we actually create a problem for somebody, give it a chance,” Harpenau said.

The compost controversy is the latest flap involving the area surrounding the I-80 interchange at mile marker 426. The area is home to Mahoney State Park, which attracts more than a million visitors a year, as well as the Henry Doorly Zoo’s Wildlife Safari Park, the Round the Bend Steakhouse and the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum.

In 1998 Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis proposed a 17,000-seat outdoor amphitheater east of the interchange. Quarry Oaks’ owner, NEBCO Inc., filed several lawsuits, leading Davis to drop the idea. Similar concerns about increased noise and traffic were raised in 2005 when an amusement park was said to be considering the site.

There also was opposition to establishment of the composting facility in 2011, and to the addition of food waste in 2013.

The site borders the Wildlife Safari Park in the tree-topped bluffs of the Platte River east of the interchange. Mahoney is about a mile to the west.

The compost is turned into rich soil sold for gardens and lawns.

Roy Smith, chairman of the Cass County Planning Commission, said that except for a turnoff road on Highway 66, you wouldn’t know that Soil Dynamics exists, because of a thick curtain of trees and shrubs.

“It’s not a bad place for that type of an operation,” Smith said.

In August he joined seven other members of the Planning Commission in voting to recommend approval of a change in county zoning laws to allow composting operations to process up to 130,000 cubic yards of yard waste and 150,000 cubic yards of food waste a year. Right now, county zoning rules restrict such composting to 20,000 cubic yards of yard waste and 1,000 cubic yards of food waste.

But due to a mistaken use of an executive session, the Cass County Planning Commission was forced to nullify that decision and reschedule a vote. That revote is scheduled for Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. at the courthouse in Plattsmouth.

Harpenau said he’s seeking to increase his volume because of increased demand. Since the closing of the Sarpy County Landfill, area garbage now has to be trucked to David City in Butler County. Harpenau said that more and more restaurants and cafeterias in the Omaha area want to be more environmentally friendly.

“Composting is recycling as opposed to landfilling,” he said.

Harpenau said he would ramp up his volume gradually and is not expanding the 5-acre “footprint” of the operation.

He added that he labels the only odor complaint he’s received as not legitimate because the person complaining could not pinpoint the time and date of the problem or whether it was the odor of manure from the Safari Park’s herd of bison and gaurs, a large Indian bison.

“There are other sources of odor besides us,” he said. “We run a pretty tight ship here. We know when to move material around and when not to.”

Soil Dynamics, which uses the motto “Make Soil Great Again,” is proposing to use a new procedure to process its compost called “turned aerated pile” that forces air through the piles of compost via buried pipes. The process, Harpenau said, would allow him to process more compost more quickly. It would take him two to three weeks to compost what used to take eight weeks.

But nearby residents aren’t so sure.

Nan Merrill, who lives at Horseshoe Lake, a development of about 150 homes and weekend cabins, said residents there were caught by surprise when the compost operation was proposed, and a level of distrust lingers.

She said residents were led to believe Soil Dynamics would compost only yard waste, and not expand, but now the operation is composting food waste and seeking to increase its capacity.

“It hasn’t been a transparent, seamless process,” Merrill said.

Doering, the Quarry Oaks attorney, said the course also hosts weddings and meetings at its clubhouse. If expanding the compost operation disrupts those, the course will consider a lawsuit, he said.

The golf course has opposed Soil Dynamics at every step, and in a 2015 letter to Gov. Pete Ricketts, accused the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality of a conflict of interest because it was regulating a firm to which it also had awarded a recycling grant.

But the department, according to state records, has repeatedly said the company is not a threat to health or the environment and is operating within state rules. In 2015, interim department Director Patrick Rice rejected, on behalf of the governor, assertions that the agency had a conflict or was unresponsive to concerns about Soil Dynamics.

Dan Cassidy, a Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium official, said the zoo’s initial fears about increased odors and pests being stirred up by the composting operation didn’t come true, and it now sends materials from both the zoo and the safari park to Soil Dynamics.

Smith, chairman of the Cass County Planning Commission, said he’s OK with the composting facility as long as it complies with local and state restrictions. He said he believes that complaints about the facility have been limited to only a few parties.

“We’ll find out (Nov. 20) if the rest of the people are thinking the same way,” he said.

paul.hammel@owh.com, 402-473-9584