Funky Town

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

"A lot of times when we follow up on odor complaints, we have not found that one plant or one company is the source, that it's a mix," says Tri-County's Wagner. "And that's where the odor regulation doesn't work for us. I can't go to Conoco or National By-Products and say, 'It's you.'"

When a particular company is suspected, however, officials may then send an inspector to take odor measurements upwind and downwind from the factory using a "scentometer."

A scentometer is a box with a series of air-intake holes and a plug that is stuck up the user's nose. The user inhales filtered, odor-free air through one nostril and unfiltered air through the other, then makes a comparison.

Mike Gorman
Ken Kage says that some of the objection to his rendering plant is a knee-jerk response.
John Johnston
Ken Kage says that some of the objection to his rendering plant is a knee-jerk response.

If this technology seems stunningly low-tech, it is. But experts agree that nothing is more effective at analyzing odors than the human nose. Inspectors could also test for specific chemicals in the air, but this approach is often useless when trying to determine the strength of an odor, which can consist of hundreds of chemicals in various quantities. In addition, notes Wagner, "You can get a chemical breakdown of air, but it doesn't tell you if the air smells like an oranges or rotten trash."

Health officials such as Wagner are trained and annually certified by the Colorado health department to identify offensive factory emissions and determine if Reg 2 standards have been violated.

"They weed out people who have too sensitive of noses and people who don't have sensitive-enough noses, and certify people in the middle," says Wagner.

Which raises another problem: subjectivity.

Ambient air is never odor-free. Air always smells like something. And a given resident's reaction to a smell is at least partly based on personal experience. In other words, odors are in the nose of the beholder. "If somebody lives next to a bakery or coffee maker, they could get sick from odors released from that, too," notes NEMIC's Creamer.

Still, when the odor inspector takes scentometer readings, he is supposed to determine the intensity of the odor and whether a specific company is, in fact, responsible for the complaint. Then an e-mail detailing the complaint is sent to NEMIC, the council of factory representatives.

And then?

"Then a dialogue begins," says Maureen Dudley of the Denver Department of Environmental Health. A "dialogue" means that a factory representative tells health officials whether they are aware of the problem, explain if there are any usual operating conditions at their factory, and remind officials of measures they are taking to solve odor concerns.

This means that companies police themselves "to the extent of odor complaints," says Creamer. "By all rights, a company could wait until they were told by the state, Tri-County or Denver that there was an odor-regulation problem."

However, an "odor-regulation problem" means a violation of Reg 2, which seems to be nonexistent. No one from Denver or Tri-County was willing to say how many violations they have cited in recent years, nor would they say which companies receive odor complaints from residents. "We don't compile a list in that manner," says Dudley.

Nor would either allow a Westword reporter to accompany an inspector taking an odor measurement outside a factory. Wagner said they were too busy, while Dudley said their policy was to not allow reporters on odor inspections without permission from the company being inspected. "As you can imagine, permission would be difficult to get for an odor inspection," she says.

In trying to explain the regulatory hurdle faced by odor inspectors, Bruce Wilson, director of the Tri-County Health Department, says, "The Reg 2 standard is set at such a level that getting a violation is rather difficult. Many of our sources will try to take care of things. We just don't often get a violation."

Indeed, despite hundreds of residential complaints, years of community activism, an elaborate local monitoring system and a citywide reek that can stretch from Commerce City to Washington Park, the Colorado Health Department says that neither Denver nor Tri-County have found a Reg 2 odor violation in more than ten years.

In 1995, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment joined NEMIC to try to reduce the Big Stink. The members agreed that every three years, representatives of the factories and health regulators would sign a memorandum of understanding detailing their goals.

"It is in the interest of all concerned to work together to resolve nuisance-type odor complaints in a manner that makes those nonresidential sources of odor responsive to the concerns of their neighbors rather than solely responsive to a regulatory response team," reads the most recent memo, dated February 1998.

In response to residential complaints, NEMIC helped create the current system of complaint hotlines, monitoring stations and standardized odor investigations -- an infrastructure for identifying odors and keeping companies informed of how often their emissions "impact" a community.

The problem is that with a complaint-based monitoring system and a ruling council of factory representatives, health authorities have effectively made it the responsibility of residents and factory owners to police odor emissions -- the former lacking the time and skills, the latter lacking the incentive.

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