Metro

‘It’s ungodly’ — Tofu manufacturing plant makes a literal stink in Ayer

A exterior of the Nasoya Tofu manufacturing plant in Ayer.
Jonathan Wiggs\Globe Staff
A exterior of the Nasoya Tofu manufacturing plant in Ayer.

AYER — The smell reminds them of rotten eggs, sewage, or fermented dairy. Neighbors also used words like rancid, nauseating, and foul.

The source of this stench? A tofu plant, whose emissions have been assaulting the town’s olfactory senses off and on since May.

“It’s ungodly,” said John Doherty, 19 . “It just smells rotten.”

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Town officials have fielded scores of complaints about the smell, and state environmental officials have recorded about a dozen more, according to Town Administrator Robert A. Pontbriand.

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Nasoya Foods USA LLC, which has operated the facility since 2016, has owned up to the problem, but has yet to solve it, officials said.

“The neighbors are beyond frustrated. They just want it to stop and so does the town,” Pontbriand said. “We want to resolve this once and for all. It’s a serious quality-of-life issue.”

The company blames the noxious fumes on hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of the tofu Nasoya manufactures, said Ross Gatta, the company’s chief executive.

“We apologize to the neighborhood and I empathize with the neighborhood. It’s unacceptable,” Gatta said Thursday in a telephone interview. “We have zero tolerance for this kind of thing.”

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The plant has two scrubbers to clean air emitted by the facility, but sometimes the system gets overwhelmed when food production equipment is being cleaned, he said.

Other times, the foul odor has been tied to an organic sludge that the company trucks to Rhode Island for disposal, Gatta said.

The plant has been used to make tofu since 1998, and neighbors had also complained intermittently about smells when the facility was used by other companies.

Town officials have been meeting with Nasoya representatives for months and have discussed the problem at every selectmen’s meeting since the end of August, Pontbriand said.

The state is also initiating an enforcement action against the company for the ongoing odor violations, said Ed Coletta, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

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At times the smell has been so bad that neighbors said they had to retreat into their homes or offices, shut the windows, and light candles or burn incense to mask the smell.

On hot, humid days during the summer, some said the smell was intolerable.

“When it’s wicked hot, it’s probably at its worst,” said Marcus Rodriguez, whose family’s business, Ream Design LLC, sits across from the plant. “We’ll come in the morning and open up the doors because it reeks in here.”

The odor problem is a mercurial foe in terms of when it happens and how long the stench stays in the air, Pontbriand said.

Sometimes he has gone directly to the plant after getting a complaint only to find nothing amiss when he arrives at the facility on New England Way. On another occasion, the smell generated complaints from Littleton, a neighboring town, Pontbriand said.

“There are these short spikes and other times . . . it lasts much longer,” he said.

Beverly Shack, 79, said she has lived across from the industrial park where the plant is located for 60 years.

“They just need to fix it,” she said. “I think the technology is there. They just don’t want to pay for it because the technology is expensive.”

Nasoya has implemented some temporary measures to address the problem while it works on a permanent fix, Gatta said. That plan, he said, will be submitted to the state by Nov. 23.

The possible solutions include adding a scrubber or scrapping its current emissions control system for one that employs different technology, Gatta said.

“We want to find the best solution. It’s not a question of money,” he said. “It’s a question of doing the right thing once and for all because the patience of the town and its residents is totally at its end.”

Sally Ream, who also works at Ream Design, said she has tried to counter the smell by turning on fans, using air conditioning, and burning patchouli-scented incense.

“It’s not so bad that we can’t stand it,” she said.

Shack’s daughter-in-law, Melissa Curtis, 31, said she lights a pumpkin-pie-scented candle to combat the odor.

Tofu isn’t served in her home.

“After smelling that . . . I’m good,” she said.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.