Funky Town

Even though the EPA says Denver's air is getting cleaner, the odor lingers on.

One area reeks from the piles of rotting animals. Another has the more earthy stench of the dusty meat-and-bone meal. Other rooms have a greasy smell from the cooking process. And then there are some odd pockets where the aroma is relatively bearable -- until you pass through yet another foul-smelling barrier.

As overwhelming as this December visit seems, it's certain to be worse in summer because, as Kage observes, "you get a nastier type of product than you normally would." Also, the plant doesn't start grinding and cooking and pressing until about 2 p.m., so this 10 a.m. visit is low tide.

Eldred Pate has talked with teens in the Cole neighborhood about the stench.
John Johnston
Eldred Pate has talked with teens in the Cole neighborhood about the stench.

Since the late '70s, widespread pollution-control efforts, from auto-emissions inspections to wood-burning regulations, have dramatically reversed Denver's air-pollution trends for several significant pollutants, including ozone and carbon monoxide. The city has reached statistical "attainment" levels for five of the six major pollutants required for clean-air status and may soon be compliant for all six.

Odors, however, are not categorized the same as other pollutants, even though the EPA says most of the air-pollution complaints they receive are odor-related.

"As far as the federal operation is concerned, if it wasn't written into the Clean Air Act, we don't deal with it," says Rich Lathrop, spokesman for the mountain region of the EPA. "If Congress were to determine that odors were a sufficient problem to be addressed by federal efforts, you could see it work its way into statutes. But typically, odors are dealt with at the local level, same as noise."

In Colorado, there are four oversight authorities monitoring the Big Stink.

For the state, there's the air-pollution division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which operates under a 1971 standard that sets a limit for commercial odor emissions. That guideline, established by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, is called Regulation 2, or "Reg 2," and says companies may only produce a specific amount of measurable odors. However, there are no penalties specified under Reg 2 for a first or even a second infraction.

At the county level are the Denver Department of Environmental Health and the Tri-County Health Department, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas and Adams counties. Both departments have inspectors who monitor the smell streams and are required to report any Reg 2 violations to the state.

The fourth authority monitoring the BS is a bit of a wild-card group that many community activists see as the weakest combatant in the odor battle. The Northeast Metro Industrial Council, or NEMIC, is a voluntary odor commission that was established in 1992 by Conoco. The NEMIC board includes delegates from several of the most odorous companies as well as governmental representatives from the Denver, Tri-County and state health departments

Residents often assume that the stench in the air is coming from a single company, and that its ebb and flow coincides with a factory's production process. But local health departments say the stink is usually an aromatic soup from a cluster of sources.

The factories most frequently cited by residents are currently represented on the NEMIC board or have been in the past; they include the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District (which residents say smells like sewage), Ralston-Purina Consumer Products (smells like dog food), National By-Products (dead animals), and Conoco and Diamond Shamrock oil refineries (sulfur, or rotten eggs).

All of these companies are located in or near Commerce City, an aptly named sea of smokestacks and silos that progressed from an agricultural center to an industrial behemoth during the last century. Several of the factories under protest are more than fifty years old. And not all are resistant to change. Conoco recently agreed to pay the state a $145,000 civil penalty and spend $22.7 million on air-pollution controls during the next six years as part of a multi-million-dollar settlement with the EPA for toxic-emissions violations. Still, some felt this timetable was too slow.

These upgrades come at a time when Commerce City and Adams County are experiencing growth pains. City planners are attempting to attract more families by annexing prairie land near DIA for residential development and to improve the city's image. Click "demographics" on the city's Chamber of Commerce Web site, for instance, and statistics are provided for a location "Within Five Mile Radius of the City Center" -- an area that a Commerce City economic-development representative admits encompasses a sizable chunk of Capitol Hill and LoDo. The statistics make it seem as though Commerce City is 65 percent white, is affluent, and has a population of 170,000. In reality, Commerce City has 1,200 businesses, but only 18,000 residents, predominantly working-class and Hispanic.

No amount of statistical manipulation can alter the impression from a drive through southern Commerce City, where there's a near-constant odorous tinge to the air. For Denver residents, however, an odor assault is largely dependent on the weather. When there's an inversion layer resulting in a trapped atmosphere, the odors coagulate in a pollution cloud, then are frequently "washed" south into downtown-area residential neighborhoods -- Clayton, Cole, Swansea, Elyria, east Globeville and Park Hill. Most of the residential odor complaints are from these areas, by those who moved into Denver neighborhoods not realizing their homes were often downwind of "funky town."

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