The less-than-sweet smell of sewage
Note from the author: Yes, there is more to the story than just the stink. But the core issue for me is that a community has no right to make another community smell its filth. While the entire controversy is more complicated, I feel not in my back yard should trump all other considerations. In New Mexico there is a concern about septic systems. I understand the concern because I personally have two septic systems and they are well-maintained. I have three water wells, which are not contaminated. These are out at our family ranch, which now is all fence and no cattle. What caught my attention with this issue is: Anyone who thinks a sewage plant will not stink just does not understand the Murphyness of sewage treatment.
Here is an easy one: Everyone who wants to live next to a sewage plant, raise your hand.
Odd, no one raised their hands. It was just as I thought; no one wants to live next to a sewage plant. Now this is not a visual issue; a sewage treatment plant does not look all that bad. And, at times, there is no untoward smell. But in my experience it is not if the air will turn into a nasty mist of human waste, it is just when.
In an unscientific poll where I talked to fellow coffee drinkers at the coffee shop, I found everyone wants the smell somewhere else. Consider: Everyone wants, or rather, needs to use their toilet, yet many do not want the consequences. Everyone wants the stink to be someone else’s problem.
Now I know that you might be eating right now so I will not go more into detail, but it is important to know that at a sewage plant there is the less-than-sweet smell of sewage. Often the smell is rank and quite offensive. And that is the conflict. It may not be every day, but there will be days with a sewage plant where no one wants it in their backyard.
There is a term for this behavior: NIMBY, not in my back yard. Well, that is where the consequences of one person’s action become a problem for another person. Often the NIMBY folks are resisting power transmission lines, roads and nuclear power plants.
But, a sewage plant, whew, that is really a NIMBY moment. I guess those who work this field of sewage treatment may come home smelling like low tide in the swamp. Someone must do it or it will not get done. They may say it is the smell of money, but we know better.
There is going to be a county commission meeting in Southern New Mexico to consider letting folks in one town send their stinky waste to another town, against the will of the recipient town. Obviously the sending town likes the idea and the receiving town is not very keen on the idea. There is a great line in this debate where the receiving town says they do not believe the new sewage plant will not stink. No fooling. Who would believe that a sewage plant would not stink upon occasion?
Let us consider the principle of government in this issue. I believe no community has the right to dump their sewage on another town. It may be legal, but it is not right. The town wanting to dump on the other town may have the money to buy votes. In fact, many government leaders like a good smelly controversy because donations will be up as some people try to foist a problem on an area away from the citizens.
This much I do know: the town wanting the sewage plant built should do so on its own land. While that sounds easy to do, it is not. Of course wherever they pick a new site for this sewage plant there will be aggrieved citizens weeping into the microphone about how they are about to lose all of the charm of their neighborhood. And they are right.
Government is about where to draw the lines. Who gets to do what with their neighbors is a constant question. The measure of freedom in a land is the ability to resist the intrusion of government in our lives. For those county officials saying that the sewage has to go somewhere so it might as well go here in a quiet neighborhood. Or should it?
Even the citizens of the first town, working to get rid of the product of their own activities, need to find a place to dump the waste products. Just because someone has the votes does not mean that dumping on a neighboring town is right.
Quality of life is one of the central themes of New Mexico. I do not want to burden people too much with the heavy hand of government. Perhaps there can be a compromise where the sewage plant is built somewhere far away from any populated areas.
For once I am completely on the NIMBY side. There would be no way to maintain the quality of life next to such a potential odor-maker. The only thing I know for certain is that the stuff has to go somewhere or we cannot live here. The principle should be: The material flushed should be taken care of where it was flushed. That is only fair.
Swickard is co-host of the radio talk show News New Mexico, which airs from 6 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday on a number of New Mexico radio stations and through streaming. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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