The residents of Upper Marlboro have various descriptions for the smell that has been invading their homes since the beginning of the summer: They say it is not an odor but a stench. It is so thick you taste it as well as smell it. It is like rotten sauerkraut. It is like having a herd of recently fed cattle in your living room.
"I am trying to think of a polite word for it," said Mabel Milloy, who finally gave up her search. "It is like sitting in an outhouse."
The stench that conquers the residents of Upper Marlboro these days comes from the Western Branch composting facility one mile south of the courthouse in Upper Marlboro. The cause of the stench is the compost, which forms acres of mounds several feet high. The origin of the compost is the waste that residents of the metropolitan area flush from their toilets each day. The waste travels through sewer pipes to the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant in the District of Columbia and each day trucks take it to the Western Branch composting facility and other facilities throughout Maryland and Virginia.
The stench is especially strong at night and in the early morning, from about 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. It is so strong, in fact, that farmer George Sliker no longer can sleep at home. Sliker, who lives about a mile from the facility on Green Landing Road, has been sleeping at friends' houses since the second week in July.
"It chokes me to death," said Sliker. "It doesn't seem right."
When Sliker first smelled the stench, he thought maybe the farm next door had a new pig pen. He checked with his neighbor but found it did not. Unlike some of his neighbors, who try to lessen the stench by shutting their windows and turning on the air conditioner, Sliker says he cannot use an air conditioner and then work outside all day because of a sinus problem.
Now Sliker feels rather resentful. "One of the rewards of working on a farm is having your garden and flowers, sitting on the porch and relaxing," he said. "Now I can't do that. Or sleep in my own bed."
Down the road from Sliker, Bonnie Milloy tries to keep out the stench by keeping her windows shut and turning on the air conditioner, but it does little good. "Even my sister and my sister-in-law won't visit me because of that smell," she complains. "They won't stay. Not even for an evening. They can't stand it."
The stench fills houses within a two-mile radius of the plant. Some residents who live further away also can smell the odor but it is not as strong, according to Maggie Johnson who lives about three miles from the site.
On some mornings, in the town of Upper Marlboro, the lawyers and judges and county officials can smell the stench. "That smell was atrocious the other morning," said Jim Bucher, a lawyer whose offices are on Main Street in Upper Marlboro.
What really galls many residents of Upper Marlboro is that they do not contribute to the compost heaps. Their homes use septic tanks rather than sewer pipes.
Officials of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission say that the compost smells bad because of its quantity -- about 500 tons are deposited each day -- and because of the August humidity. The trucks from Blue Plains began depositing compost at the facility in the spring and all of it is still there.
There is hope in sight, according to John M. Brusingham, assistant general manager of WSSC. "We've been starting to move it off as of last week," Brusingham said. "We're going to use it for restoration of trenched land and the state highway commission is going to use it when building roads. Hopefully we'll also get clientele from farmers," who want to use the compost as manure.