University City and Clairemont residents might see something curious outside their homes as of late: city officials walking through their neighborhoods, noses in the air, sniffing for offensive odors.

Each morning last month, city workers were walking the streets in those communities to smell the air – a response to an influx of smell complaints from residents who believe nasty odors are invading from the nearby city-owned Miramar Landfill.

Michael Thompson, deputy director of the city’s Waste Reduction and Disposal Division, said there have been more complaints filed against the landfill this calendar year than “we have ever received in 50 years.”

The complaints have led to a standoff between the city, which owns the landfill, and a county regulatory agency that blamed the city for the foul smell. The city says there’s no evidence that its landfill is responsible. The two sides are dug in.

While the city and county debate, two law firms have stepped into the fray and are ready to sue the city. They’re recruiting University City and Clairemont residents to join a class-action suit.


The Miramar Landfill opened in 1959 and spans about 1,500 acres. It takes in about 4,000 tons of household and commercial trash on weekdays. Greenery is accepted in a separate area of the landfill and is diverted to compost, mulch and wood chips; all available to the public.

The landfill is lined with plastic sheeting. Compacted trash has to be covered daily with soil or soil-like material to control to control odors.

The county’s Air Pollution Control District received at least 107 odor complaints since Jan. 26 and issued the city of San Diego a notice of violation in March. Two months later, the case is still open but no fine has been levied, APCD officials said in an email.

The agency says an air analysis shows that odors are wafting into surrounding neighborhoods from the landfill. The city did its own review of the county’s study, and that determined the origin of the odors to be inconclusive.

The APCD collected four air samples in March; one in University City and three at the landfill. Based on those tests, the agency cited the city for odorous chemicals that it said came from the landfill.

But the city hired its own experts, Sacramento-based SCS Engineers, to review the APCD findings. That review determined the chemicals detected by APCD staff “can also be derived from sources other than the landfill.” Thompson said the odors could also be coming from a nearby waste treatment plant or from freeway traffic.

In a two-page report, SCS Engineers said the APCD results “do not support a conclusion that the Miramar Landfill is driving an odor episode at University City.”

APCD officials stand by their findings. The agency said its inspectors also sniffed around the University City area, where they investigated by “going up and downwind of the complaint” and taking air samples that were “analyzed for a chemical fingerprint of the offending odor.”

In addition to the scientific analysis, both the city and APCD used olfactory receptors that send information to the brain to trace the source of odors. That is, both the city and APCD deployed workers to smell the air. Turns out, different brains arrived at different conclusions.

Mark zu Hone, operations manager at Miramar Landfill, is one of the city workers doing smell tests in the communities. On the days they’ve checked the area, city workers haven’t found any residents complaining about odors.

Whatever the source of the odors, zu Hone said there have not been any complaints since April 26.

Janis Deady, a University City resident and business owner, blames the odor on the landfill and is not shy about admitting she is a chronic complainer. In addition to filing a “massive amount of complaints” with the APCD, Deady has also taken to social media to encourage others to complain.

Deady said the smell has been powerful enough at times to force her indoors with all windows closed.

“I’ve got so many complaints; a massive amount of complaints, a lot,” she said. “I don’t have time to file a complaint every time. I have a life. I’m sensitive to smells. I want to be outside, and I love to work in my yard. You can’t function when the smell is really bad. It’s equivalent to walking through a trash pile.”

Deady urged other University City residents to complain about the landfill odors in a University City News post in February.

“When you smell the odor you need to file a complaint DAILY (sic),” she wrote. “Every person in a household should file a complaint. As I understand it each person, per day, counts as a complaint.”

Deady says the smell has abated and takes credit for forcing the city to address the issue.

Yet the only action taken by landfill operators was to stop turning the long rows of green material called windrows on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, said zu Hone. The rows are turned twice a week to maintain the proper oxygen and moisture content.

The city and county remain at odds even with a drop-off in complaints.

While the APCD and city debate the origin of the odors, two law firms apparently are already convinced the landfill is the cause. Last month, some University City and Clairemont residents received a letter from Arias Sanguinetti Stahle & Torrijos, a Los Angeles firm, offering “free consultations” to residents interested in a possible class action lawsuit against the landfill.

The Los Angeles attorneys have joined with Liddle & Dubin, a Detroit firm, in pursuing a possible suit. Liddle & Dubin has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Sunshine Canyon Landfill in Sylmar in Los Angeles County.

H.G. Reza is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years, covering law enforcement and terrorism.

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