Edmonton compost company facing registration cancellation gets temporary permission to operate

Residents fed up with odours near a west-end composting company were disappointed to learn recently that the facility has received permission from court to temporarily keep operating.

Cleanit Greenit CEO says she needs more time to close west-end facility

Bags of compost sit on the ground.
A west Edmonton composting company that was set to lose its registration from the province on June 30 is still running as it challenges the decision in court. (Ty Ferguson/CBC)

For nearly a decade, a rotten smell has periodically wafted into Shelagh Lam's neighbourhood in northwest Edmonton.

The stench, which she and her family members describe as "nauseating" and "a combination of cannabis and urine," is so intense that she once found herself almost in tears while working from home during the pandemic.

Some days, the smell prevents her children from playing in the backyard and they encounter it on their way to school.

"When we get on the bus in the morning, sometimes the smell gets trapped in there," said her 11-year-old son Kai.

West Edmonton residents holding their noses and losing their patience with compost smells

2 months ago
Duration 2:16
Edmonton's Cleanit Greenit was set to lose its provincial registration but got permission from court to keep running. Residents concerned about odour say they're disappointed.

Lam lives in the Trumpeter neighbourhood in northwest Edmonton. Many residents in the Big Lake area have long suspected the smell was coming from piles of organic matter at Cleanit Greenit Composting System, a company that has been turning organic waste into compost since the 1990s. The composting facility is in an industrial area, south of the Yellowhead Trail and just west of Anthony Henday Drive.

After years of reporting odour complaints, residents learned last year that the City of Edmonton was seeking a court order to address the issue and the province was cancelling Cleanit Greenit's registration, effective June 30, 2022.

Lam said she stopped formally complaining this year because she figured the community's work was done and they would put up with the smell until the composter closed.

June 30 came and went, but the smell stuck around, leaving residents frustrated and concerned about the future of the facility.

Shelagh Lam and her son Kai both can't stand the smell that settles in their northwest Edmonton neighbourhood. (Ty Ferguson/CBC)

Composter still operating

According to Carla Jones, a spokesperson for Alberta Environment and Parks, about a week before the cancellation date, Cleanit Greenit filed an application with the Court of Queen's Bench to challenge the government's registration decision. 

She said a hearing for the judicial review has not yet been scheduled.

Cleanit Greenit also made an application for a stay of the decision, which will be heard on Aug. 4.

The court granted an interim stay of the registration cancellation, allowing the company to operate in the meantime.

Both the City of Edmonton and the province oppose the stay application.

"We understand that Cleanit Greenit will be requesting a further extension of the stay," said City of Edmonton spokesperson Chrystal Coleman.

She said the City plans to attend court and ask permission to intervene in the proceeding. 

A mom watches her son jump on a trampoline in a backyard.
The smell is so strong on some days that Lam's children stop playing outside in their backyard. (Ty Ferguson/CBC)

'We will close our facility,' CEO says

CEO Kirstin Castro-Wunsch said in an email that the company implemented "airdar technology," which reduced odour complaints last year.

"Still, we will close our facility although it is critically needed to help the environment," she told CBC News.

"We are just asking the court for time so the customers do not have to go to landfill and staff can be changed to other jobs and things can be closed properly."

Castro-Wunsch said there is a shortage of composting facilities in the Edmonton area and that some of her clients are taking organic material back to the landfill.

A machine picks up a load of compost.
Cleanit Greenit continues to operate in July 2022 as it challenges the Alberta government's decision to cancel its registration. (Ty Ferguson/CBC)

Last year, the company announced it had gathered more than 2,200 signatures from online and door-to-door petitions opposing the facility's closure. 

A petition from residents concerned about odours drew a similar number of signatures.

Cleanit Greenit's petition said the company is asking to stay open so that it "can finance a move to a new location, which should take no more than three years."

The petition also said the province's order prevents the company from obtaining financing and that odours in the west end come from multiple sources, including other businesses, incomplete sewers, recycling plants, pet food manufacturing, oil and gas wells, road construction and a sewage lift station.

Proposed rural facility

Last year, another company that Kirstin Castro-Wunsch is involved with, Carbon Capture Farm Inc. held engagement sessions with Leduc County residents about a proposed composting facility near the town of Thorsby.

During one presentation, a recording of which was posted to YouTube, company representatives said the chance of bad odours would be extremely low.

"It would be really nice if we could redesign that Edmonton site to have more acres but that simply is the one thing that's not possible there," Castro-Wunsch said during the question and answer session.

According to Leduc County, the project did not proceed because the landowner withdrew consent last year for the company to apply for a development permit.

Residents hope for closure

The city's originating application for the court order includes 47 affidavits from affected residents. Many of them said they had been woken up in the night by the smell. One resident reported making 400 calls about odours between January 2019 and Aug. 21, 2020. Another compared the smell to a mountain of rotting dirty diapers that has been baked in the sun and combined with a chemical compound.

Tanner Wilson, who lives in Edmonton's Hawks Ridge neighbourhood, said he was disappointed that the smell returned after June 30.

He said he and his wife close all of their windows to keep the smell out of the house, even on hot summer days.

An Edmonton homeowner stands on a residential street.
Tanner Wilson has experienced migraines on days when his Hawks Ridge neighbourhood is particularly stinky. (Ty Ferguson/CBC)

Wilson said he develops migraines, watering eyes and a sore throat when the smell is strong — symptoms mentioned by other residents in affidavits.

A 2018 composting odour document from the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control's National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health, microbial volatile organic compounds (VOCs) near composting facilities "are below levels thought to be capable of causing symptoms of intoxication or sensory irritation," but there may be interactions between different types of VOCs and non-odourous pollutants that contribute to health symptoms.

"It is the psychosocial aspects of odour annoyance that may have a bearing on symptomatic complaints," the document said. 

Both Wilson and Lam said they see the value in composting but wish the west-end facility would close.

"I would hope that the three entities could work together to find a better, more sustainable spot for it to happen," said Lam, who also has concerns about the company's environmental track record. 

In its news release announcing the registration cancellation last year, the province said that following detailed inspections of the composting facility, it had identified "ongoing and persistent issues related to air, land and water."

Company applied for approval

According to the province, Cleanit Greenit applied for an approval to operate the composting facility in west Edmonton in June.

Cleanit Greenit has been operating under a registration, not an approval. The distinction refers to the amount of feedstock — manure or vegetative matter — a facility collects per year and the amount of anticipated environmental impact.

Approvals are required for facilities that accept more than 20,000 tonnes per year while registrations are needed for those accepting up to that amount. 

Some residents have concerns about the approval application but Castro-Wunsch said the court will decide on a closure date.

She said the company has learned "a great deal" and is looking for partners for future projects.


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news and files for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.