Paul Ekstrom, a retired firefighter in Carpinteria, says he and his wife, Linda, have been living a happier life for the past few months, largely free from the pungent smell of pot that drove them indoors with the windows shut every day.

That’s because earlier this year, Ed Van Wingerden, owner of the 11-acre Ever-Bloom cannabis greenhouse operation at 4701 Foothill Road, just 65 feet from the Ekstroms’ home on Manzanita Street, installed more than 100 carbon filters from the Netherlands to clean up the smell of pot.

A study released this month by SCS Engineers, a Santa Maria consulting firm, shows that on average, the filters or “scrubbers” developed by the Envinity Group, a Dutch firm, can eliminate 84% of the “skunky” smell of cannabis before it escapes through the greenhouse roof vents.

“When those carbon scrubbers went in, the odor dropped dramatically,” Paul Ekstrom said. “Before, it could be six days a week with a strong smell in the morning and a strong smell in the evening — and it’s not happening. It’s been like a 90 to 95% improvement.”

Also gone, Ekstrom said, is the annoying “laundromat” smell of an earlier technology — the curtain of mist that was emitted from perforated pipes around the outside perimeter of the greenhouses.

This misting, called a “vapor-phase” system, was designed to neutralize the stench of cannabis in the outside air, but some of Ever-Bloom’s neighbors said the mist itself was causing them breathing problems. Van Wingerden shut down the system 10 months ago.

In 2020, Ekstrom and the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, a citizens’ group advocating for tighter regulation of the industry, and Gregory and Marllus Gandrud, then-residents of Chaparral Drive, filed a public nuisance lawsuit against Van Wingerden and other members of his family, alleging that the “ever-present noxious odor” from the Foothill greenhouses was ruining their quality of life and making them sick. Ever-Bloom became a flashpoint in conflicts over the local pot industry.

But now the parties are in negotiation and a settlement is expected soon. The Dutch carbon scrubbers represent “the latest and best technology,” Van Wingerden said this week, adding, “It’s only fair that everyone puts them in.”

Cannabis Operators Fund Study on Carbon Filter Effectiveness on Odor

A bag holding air inside a cannabis greenhouse
Air samples are pumped into bags inside sealed containers at Roadside Blooms, a cannabis greenhouse operation at 3684 Via Real, during a study on the effectiveness of carbon filters for odor control. Credit: Courtesy photo

The SCS Engineers study on carbon filters was performed in a 48-hour period last August at Roadside Blooms, a 4-acre cannabis greenhouse operation equipped with Envinity scrubbers at 3684 Via Real. The greenhouse operators, Van Wingerden and his partners — Phil Greene, Mike and Adam Palmer and Amir-Hamsa Eskandari — said they paid between $750,000 and $900,000 for the study, which compared the smell of pot at harvest time in and around a greenhouse with scrubbers to that of a greenhouse without scrubbers.

“We view it as part of our investment and our commitment to fix the odor in the community,” Greene said. By the end of 2023, he said he hopes “the majority of people who need scrubbers will have them.”

Noting that the SCS study was “site-specific,” county officials said this week that they had not yet determined whether Envinity scrubbers represent the best available odor control technology for the greenhouse industry.

But on Wednesday, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission unanimously required carbon filters for one of the largest proposed cannabis greenhouse operations in the valley: 13 acres at Vista Verde Farms, 3450 Via Real. Cannabis is not yet under cultivation there; it’s the site of a Gallup & Stribling orchid operation owned by Case Van Wingerden and his son, Alex — a different branch of the large Carpinteria farming family.

The Vista Verde Farms operators — Alex Van Wingerden and Tristan Strauss, the owner of Headwaters, a California-based cannabis supply chain — had initially proposed to use solely a vapor-phase system to control odor, and the county Planning Director approved that plan.

After Concerned Carpinterians, a citizens’ group, appealed the project to the county Planning Commission, Strauss and Van Wingerden revised their application and agreed to install only carbon scrubbers.

At the same time, Strauss has suggested that the cost would be prohibitive if scrubbers were required industry-wide, especially in today’s bad market. At $20,000 each and a recommended ratio of up to 10 per acre, it’s expensive to adopt the new technology. The cost at Ever-Bloom alone was about $2 million; installing scrubbers valley-wide, as the coalition and Van Wingerden have called for, might represent a cost of nearly $40 million.

“The cannabis market is in a place of peril right now,” Strauss told the county Planning Commission last July, during a hearing on Valley Crest, a 9-acre cannabis greenhouse operation that he runs at 4385 Foothill. The price of cannabis has dropped 80% since 2018, to about $300 per pound, Strauss said.

Valley Crest, he noted, is surrounded by farmland and the project is not at the top of the county’s long list of residential odor complaints in the Carpinteria Valley. Strauss said the vapor-phase system for odor control was working fine and there was no need for scrubbers.

“Politicians in Santa Barbara County have to decide if they want us to stay here,” he said.

Mixed Requirements on Carbon Scrubbers from County

But administrators at the Cate School, an exclusive boarding high school half a mile away and uphill from Valley Crest on Cate Mesa Road, told county planners that the smell of pot wafts in to the campus daily from cannabis operations in the valley below; no one knows which greenhouses are to blame.

In addition, several of Valley Crest’s neighbors on Casitas Pass Road, including the owners of an avocado orchard and a large outdoor rose operation, said the smell of pot from the project and its vapor-phase system were intolerable.

In a 3-2 vote at the time, the commission required the growers to install scrubbers at Valley Crest within 12 months as a condition of their zoning permit.

“There is a solution out there, but you said it would be financial suicide to install scrubbers,” commission Chair Mike Cooney, who represents the Carpinteria Valley, told Strauss. “We can’t use that threat as the standard. We need to see if as much has been done as can be done.”

Case Van Wingerden appealed the commission’s ruling to the county Board of Supervisors, and in October, the board tossed out the requirement for scrubbers, noting that the project was not near any residentially-zoned property. 

The Valley Crest operation, which is owned by Case and Alex Van Wingerden, will be allowed to continue operating with solely a vapor-phase system for odor control.

In the wake of the new study on the Envinity scrubbers, the real test of county policy will come on Tuesday, when the board hears a similar appeal for a Carpinteria cannabis greenhouse project.

The project on the table this time is Ceres Farm, a 9-acre cannabis greenhouse operation run by Strauss at 6030 Casitas Pass Road, next to Valley Crest. Cate School administrators and the greenhouse neighbors are again urging the board to uphold the Planning Commission’s requirement to have growers install carbon scrubbers within 12 months.

“We continue to smell the odor at Cate School, and it’s impossible for us to discern where it’s coming from,” Charlotte Brownlee, assistant head of the school, said this week.

“We want to get to a situation where the enforcement is not complaint-based. We’re very much interested in seeing that scrubbers be adopted because they work.”

Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her report to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.