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At Los Al Base, Too Much Mulch or Mulch Ado about Nothing?

Residents surrounding the military base say smell from commercial mulching on the property affects their quality of life. Base officials say it's not the mulch that smells.

Every three to four days a foul stench wafts past Tony Flores’ home.

“It smells like a city dump,” said the longtime Garden Grove resident, who lives about a mile and a quarter downwind from the mulch piles at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base. According to Flores, it happens so often some of his neighbors don't even bother mentioning it anymore. 

 “I think people have just said, ‘Nothing’s going to be done. We’re kind of stuck with this," Flores said. 

Flores is one of a number of residents in Los Alamitos, Seal Beach and Garden Grove who have made a stink about the smell they blame on mulch piles stored on the Joint Forces Training Base. A group recently asked the Los Alamitos City Council to intervene with the base.

Agromin, an Oxnard-based soil manufacturing company, stores the mulch on base and distributes it to its customers like Angels Stadium and Disneyland. According to base officials, Agromin has an agreement with the base that allows the company to sort and store mulch on a site just the west of the Navy Golf Course. In return, Agromin provides the base with landscaping services.

Locals say the smell is affecting their quality of life and has been going on for years. Base officials say the smell usually doesn't comes from the base, and, when the base is to blame they act quickly.

The issue first became contentious in 2009, when the base allowed Agromin to start composting in the same area it now stores the mulch.

The project ended in early 2010. A number of cities including Los Alamitos and Seal Beach considered legal action, but they were able to come to an agreement with the base and Agromin in which the company would cease composting on the base and limit the amount of mulch it stores.

However, Los Alamitos Councilman Troy Edgar said the community is starting to question whether Agromin is exceeding the standards set by their agreements. 

“There’s uproar right now,” said Edgar. He said he’s received about eight to 10 comments from residents and civic leaders over the past six weeks, many of them concerned about the smells and truck noises on the base.

According to Edgar, some residents are concerned that Agromin appeases them when they complain but returns to business as usual after a while. However, Edgar said he doesn’t believe the base or the companies involved are being malicious, just that there is a miscommunication between the parties involved.

Agromin officials did not return calls for comment.

Military officials argue some locals are quick to blame the base for any nearby problesm, including gophers, coyotes, noises and smells.

Major Arnold Carrillo, director of base operations, said base personnel checks the mulch every day specifically by smelling it, and they hadn’t seen any major noticeable odors recently.

“Every time we sent someone out there it (the smell) isn’t there,” Carrillo said.

When it comes to criticism, the base is “a very easy target because there’s a lot of odors in this area,” said Lt. Colonel Tom Lasser (ret) who used to command airfield operations. “The wind blows it in a million directions.”

Base Environmental Manager Tom Tandoc, who monitors the status of the mulch for the base, agreed and listed a more recent example.

In February, Tandoc said he received a number of calls from nearby residents reporting a terrible odor. According to Tandoc, the South County Air Quality Management Department investigated and discovered the smell was coming from fertilizer on farmland on the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.

“Haven’t got any more complaints following that,” Tandoc said. “The big thing that people get confused about is that compost generally doesn’t smell bad. The thing that really smells bad is manure.”

Tandoc said he learned the farmer adds fertilizer two or three times a year on the Seal Beach base, and Tandoc wonders if many of the residents are actually smelling the Seal Beach location instead of Los Al. And, Tandoc added, any time he hears a complaint from a resident, he responds as quickly as he can by contacting base or Agromin personnel or by investigating the matter himself.

According to Tandoc, Agromin turns the mulch piles with a bulldozer about three times a day so the mulch doesn’t start to smell. Tandoc said that if the mulch, which is made of wood, gets exposed to a lot of water and doesn’t get rotated, the bacteria can multiply, causing an odor.

Tandoc said he also believes that because of the base's now-shuttered composting program, people still think there’s compost on the base.

Garden Grove’s Tony Flores, president of the West Garden Grove Residents Association, said the name doesn’t matter.

“Whatever they call it ― call it composting it, call it mulching, call it creating a new frickin’ flower ― it still smells,” Flores said. “In all the years that I’ve been here, I’ve never smelled any fuel. The only thing we’ve ever smelled from those folks is the smell from this mulching pile or the compost pile."

Flores adds that he wants Agromin to come up with an “odor elimination” policy not an “odor minimization policy.” He places most of the blame on Agromin and not the base, which he compares to a landlord with an unruly tenant.

Residents who notice strong odors from the base can call 562-795-2114 to alert base representatives.

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Lil Marty April 05, 2013 at 08:58 PM
I think the odor is coming from stinky Pablo or barefoot Todd! They both smell like mulch mixed with liver, a dead seal, and some dog poop!

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