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A Richmond composting plant is receiving complaints for the smell.Murdock48/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The number of complaints about foul smells from a Richmond composting plant has increased in recent months, even as the facility's owners have been in talks over a new permit that hinges on air-quality concerns.

There had been 399 complaints related to Harvest Power as of Sept. 14, compared with 210 for all of 2015 and 105 the preceding year, says Ray Robb, manager of environmental regulation and enforcement for Metro Vancouver.

The air-quality concerns are a headache for Harvest, which is operating under a temporary approval from Metro that expires September 30. The complaints also highlight a challenge for governments: balancing the economic and environmental benefits of composting with the stench that can go along with the process.

And the effect of the bad smells is not necessarily restricted to people who live nearby.

"We get a lot of complaints that are Harvest-related that are closer to Harvest, like south Burnaby or Richmond," Mr. Robb said in a recent interview. "But we're getting complaints in Vancouver that we believe are [related to] Harvest."

Metro issued a temporary approval to Harvest to extend a two-year permit during which Harvest had been expected to iron out odour concerns. As part of Metro's Zero Waste campaign, a ban on food waste – estimated to account for up to 40 per cent of what was being trucked to the landfill – took effect Jan. 1, 2015.

Some of that extra food waste now makes its way to Harvest, which is owned by a United States-based company that runs numerous composting and waste-to-energy facilities in Canada and the United States.

Harvest has taken numerous measures to reduce bad smells, including turning compost piles more frequently and installing additional ventilating equipment, said Stephen Bruyneel, a spokesman for the company. "We continue to be in discussions with Metro … the goal is to have something by the end of September, we're hoping that's the case," he said.

Harvest's operations include both open-air composting of rows of organic material and an enclosed site that turns waste into biofuel.

In a staff report last year, the City of Richmond said it was concerned that "Harvest Power has not carefully considered all technology options" and suggested the company should consider a "completely closed facility."

Harvest is willing to spend money on long-term solutions, "but we need to know the permit conditions to know what and where to invest," Mr. Bruyneel said.

Other jurisdictions have moved composting indoors. The Resort Municipality of Whistler has an enclosed composting plant that cost $13-million, began operating in 2009 and now runs at its capacity of 50,000 tonnes a day.

The municipality has received one odour complaint since the plant started operations, a spokesperson said, adding that, "it should be noted that the facility is located far away from residential areas."

Surrey announced plans last year to build an enclosed facility that will turn organic waste into natural gas. That plant is under construction and expected to open in 2017.

Metro has a contract, scheduled to run until 2019, with Harvest Power to process organics from North Shore, Langley and Maple Ridge transfer stations, as well as part of the organics collected by the City of Vancouver. That contract is for about 40,000 tonnes of material a year.

Harvest does not post its tipping fees on its web site, saying fees vary with the type and quality of material, but in general they are lower than other composting operations in the region.

The City of Vancouver sends about half of its green-bin waste to Harvest, said Albert Shamess, the city's director of waste management – roughly 1,500 to 1,600 tonnes a month at an average monthly cost of $60,000 to $70,000 a month. Vancouver's deliveries to Harvest "are only a small part of the total amount they receive," Mr. Shamess said.

Metro can refuse to issue a permit to Harvest, but such outright rejections are rare, Mr. Robb said.

"What we do instead is we will propose requirements that we think are protective," he said.

If a permit is issued, it can be appealed.

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