Funky Town

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

This was true of Youth Energy's Pate, who says he rented a house in the Cole neighborhood not realizing "this was the area with the stench." During a friend's visit from Africa last year, Pate says, the factory odors were humiliating.

"I brought him back into the neighborhood, and it was so embarrassing. I was ashamed to have to give somebody an explanation as to why my neighborhood smelled."

Sometimes, conditions cause a flux in the aroma assault. "Meteorological conditions are the number-one contributor to odor complaints," says Lynn Robbio Wagner, an air-program supervisor for the Tri-County Health Department. "Geographically, we're at the bottom of the bowl, and at night it just sits and stagnates and moves in on neighborhoods."

Christopher Pride wonders why more can't be done to clear the air.
Christopher Pride wonders why more can't be done to clear the air.

Researchers say industrial odors can travel up to fifteen miles and not only are a nuisance, but can be hazardous to public health. A report co-written by several odor experts from a variety of fields and published in a 2000 issue of the Journal of Agromedicine concluded that odors from the same sort of factories producing the BS can have detrimental health effects.

"Our current state of knowledge clearly suggests that it is possible for odorous emissions from animal operations, wastewater treatment and recycling of biosolids to have an impact on health," the report concluded.

The most frequently reported symptoms included eye-nose-throat irritation, headaches, nausea, cough, palpitations, shortness of breath and alterations in mood. The report also said noxious odors are not an inevitable consequence of industry, noting "research has shown that it is possible to manage or mitigate odor emissions by a variety of approaches" -- either through innovative management practices or new technologies or both.

So if these odors are so annoying and possibly dangerous and potentially preventable, and if all of these oversight agencies are fully aware which companies are causing the problem, then why hasn't there been a serious effort to curtail factory odors?

According to health officials, it's your fault.

Colorado's odor-regulation policy is "nuisance-complaint-based." That is, citizen complaints are the impetus for any enforcement action. During the past five years, odor complaints to the Denver Department of Environmental Health have remained consistent, around 55 per year, except for a dramatic doubling in 1996 and a near-tripling in 2000 -- years notable for warmer weather and community activist movements against odor polluters.

Health-department officials point to the moderate number of complaints in Denver and a sudden decline in complaints this year in Tri-County as proof of progress. But according to an August phone survey of 100 residents sponsored by NEMIC, 58 percent say the odor problem has remained constant in recent years, and the remainder of respondents were twice as likely to believe that the odor problem has worsened rather than improved. Furthermore, when the Big Stink flared up, 86 percent said they did nothing about the odors or simply closed their windows.

The survey respondents also tended to believe that complaining was pointless, saying they either didn't think any action would be taken, they didn't know whom to call, or they did not believe odors were a significant problem.

"What is the point of complaining time and time again when nothing ever happens?" asks Granado. "I'm 53, and I've been complaining for twenty to thirty years."

"People don't want to complain just for the sake of complaining if there isn't going to be any action," says Denver City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, who in 1996 joined with activists in an unsuccessful effort to convince the state health department to strengthen Reg 2.

Health officials and factory owners, however, contend that complaining to the odor hotlines is absolutely essential.

"It's a catch-22," says Dennis Creamer, the chairman of NEMIC and Conoco's regulatory legislative consultant. "If people don't complain, then nothing takes place. But nothing takes place if people don't complain."

The fact is, both sides are correct. Something does happen when residents complain, but it hasn't solved the problem.

When an odor complaint is submitted to the Denver or Tri-County health department, it sets off a series of formalities that culminate in a very simple outcome: The companies are allowed to continue producing offensive emissions.

First, a complainant needs to contact a health official. This can be difficult, as odors aggravated by the inversion layer tend to peak during the evening and early-morning hours, when odor-hotline callers are sent to voice mail.

If a caller does reach a health official, he is asked to describe the odor. This is also difficult. "When you walk outside, you smell a foul odor. Unless you're trained in knowing what certain odors smell like, it's not easy for the complainer to describe the smell," explains Councilwoman Ortega.

If a caller reaches a health official and describes the odor, a complaint is filed. The official might then choose to check the "odor meteorological stations," a series of six weather monitors installed near NEMIC-member factories that essentially tell officials which way the wind is blowing (odor-station information is available online at

By comparing the details of the complaint with the current weather system, an official tries to pinpoint which factory is primarily responsible for the odor. But this, too, can be tough.

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