It's described as a monster. It comes through the walls, some northeast metro Denver residents say. It wakes you up at night. It attacks without warning, then quietly disappears. Hey, stick your head outside and see if it's gone.
It doesn't really have a name, but the Big Stink -- which sometimes smells like sulfur, sometimes dog food, sometimes sewage -- is largely a combination of factory emissions from companies located within or near Commerce City.
Depending on weather conditions, this stinky gumbo can range from being a persistent nuisance for those who live nearby to a massive olfactory knockout that can be whiffed downtown. Yet decades of resident complaints and organized community efforts have yielded little success in forcing factories to reduce their odors. Instead, the chronic assault continues.
"It's like a rape," says Jarid Manos, director of the Great Plains Restoration Council, an environmental agency that has protested the problem through its Denver office. "It forces its way into your home and overpowers you with the most sickening smell imaginable. You can't think about anything else."
In a recent survey of northeast Denver residents, 55 percent say the putrid smell is "a problem," while 25 percent say it's a "major problem." As a local issue, residents ranked factory odors fifth -- beneath such concerns as education and crime, but above taxes, the economy and drug/alcohol matters.
Eldred Pate, a Denver youth-program manager, began talking about the odor issue with the young teens in his Youth Energy after-school program. On some mornings, the kids walk to school with their jackets pulled over their noses to block the stench. The Youth Energy group joined forces with the Great Plains Restoration Council, going door-to-door passing out local odor-complaint hotline numbers.
Among the young activists is thirteen-year-old Christopher Pride, who attends middle school in the Cole neighborhood, located downwind of the industrial zone. Pride knows far more about odors than he cares to; he says that ever since Pate began discussing the odor problem two years ago, he's become more aware of the pollution.
"I think it affects me more because I'm learning about it and where it's coming from," he says. "If it's a good day and then the smell comes along, then I just want to go into the house and be bored."
Others are not so alert. Pate was horrified to discover that residents nearest the factories were sometimes the least likely to notice the smell: They'd become desensitized.
"It angered me that some people didn't know what was going on -- and I hate saying this pun -- right under their nose," Pate says. "They can't smell it, and that's a shame."
When told that after years of non-compliance, Denver is on the verge of achieving compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency's clean-air standards, Pate is stunned.
"That's...," he struggles for the word, "...ludicrous."
"Are you ready to tour the plant?" Ken Kage asks.
It's a tricky question. Yes, there's nothing left to do after the interview but tour the plant. But it's doubtful that any novice is prepared for an inspection of National By-Products, a rendering plant at 5800 York Street, in unincorporated Adams County.
Kage, the company's district manager, claims that many of the odor complaints against his seventy-year-old company are a knee-jerk response to the grisly rendering process. "We know the type of business we are," he says. "Right off the bat, our public perception is not the greatest."
The plant grinds and cooks dead animals: spoiled meat from grocery stores, roadkill, slaughterhouse scraps, farm animals and euthanized pets. "We don't handle dogs, but we do pretty much everything else," Kage says.
The distinctive blend makes National By-Products the most offensive odor source, according to Lorraine Granado, a community activist for the nearby Swansea and Elyria neighborhoods. "You have to close your windows, doors, everything," she says. "It's just nauseating. We've seen dead pigs dumped on the tarmac. It's the most horrible smell."
Touring the plant provides a visceral demonstration of how some of the metro area's bad smells are born.
Kage begins at the end of the production line, showing edible and inedible tallow and meat-and-bone meal. The meal sits in large mounds and looks like dark oats with bits of white rock. The material is primarily used for livestock feed and pet food -- hence the National By-Products logo: two arrows in a perpetual circle. It may be a nauseating example of recycling, but it's a remarkably efficient process that dates back to ancient Egypt. Other rendering by-products are used to produce a variety of products, from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics, candles to Gummi Bears.
From 2 p.m. to 6 a.m., during normal operations, the rendering plant grinds the animal parts into smaller and smaller pieces, mixing them with used fry grease collected from restaurant kitchens and steam-cooking each batch at more than 250 degrees. The plant renders up to 5 million pounds of animal by-products per week. Kage claims to spend $200,000 annually to maintain air-stack scrubbers for the purpose of reducing odor emissions, adding that the company does as much as possible to reduce such discharges.
Across the site, a few haphazardly tossed animal stomachs lie outside on a loading dock, bleaching in the bright sun. Inside, the first impression of the dim interior is a mass of black and red. Large piles of parts --all sorts, from nearly whole pigs to scattered burgundy rib cages -- gradually come into focus. The walls and machinery are splashed with textured black gore, there's mucky slush on the floors.
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.
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."
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."
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 www.rarc.org/tricounty).
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
And now one of these monitors has shut down entirely. Tri-County officials say they are scuttling the department's air-quality division because of a lack of state funds. They are turning their scentometers over to the state.
Jill Cooper, legal administrator for the Air Pollution Control Division of the state health department, stresses that with the creation of NEMIC the state "did not delegate any of our enforcement authority to this group." But she acknowledged NEMIC effectively makes Reg 2 a "backup," one that hasn't been used against a company since the creation of the council.
The only exceptions are hog-farm polluters. Billionaire Philip Anschutz, who owns property adjacent to a hog farm in Weld County, led a successful effort to convince state legislators to tighten Reg 2's odor restrictions -- but only for hog farms. The law took effect in 1999; consequently, Reg 2 has 46 pages of hog-farm rules, compared to a single page of standards for all other odor sources. Needless to say, the population of northeast Denver has no known billionaires pushing legislation on its behalf.
Not that the legislature is required to strengthen Reg 2. The state health department has the option of strengthening the regulation on its own. Says Cooper, "Ultimately, if we decide NEMIC is not being effective, we would fall back to re-looking at the regulation and strengthening it."
Cooper, who declines to comment on whether NEMIC has been effective, acknowledges that Reg 2 "could be more detailed, and it could probably be more effective."
NEMIC chairman Creamer says his voluntary coalition has been successful at reducing the BS, a claim even some of the odor activists say is accurate. And, in theory, if general air quality has improved in recent years, then at least some of the smell has likely been reduced as well. Still, some say significant change will not occur without state action.
"I know NEMIC has really tried to make some honest efforts to address the problem," says Ortega. "But until Reg 2 is changed, all of those efforts will not make a real impact to the serious odor problems."
Creamer says that he understands the frustration of residents and that he, too, once lived in a neighborhood swamped by factory odors: "It wasn't much fun. You have to work around frequency of the odors, and it can be an emotional type issue for many people."
While Creamer says NEMIC is not opposed to changing Reg 2, he says he doubts strengthening the regulation will eliminate the stench.
"I think NEMIC is reacting to odors below what Reg. 2 would be changed to," he says. "Quite frankly, I don't care if a complaint meets the odor regulation or not. If it's a complaint, it's a complaint, and we'll work on each complaint."
Even if the regulation were strengthened, there's still the problem of subjectivity. Cooper, who co-wrote the stringent hog-farm odor restrictions, says she's confident there is an enforceable solution.
"Controlling odors through the regulatory process is challenging," she says, "but not impossible."
Some continue to be amazed at this lack of change. Take Christopher Pride, for instance. While working on the odor issue, the industrious eighth-grader attended NEMIC meetings and quizzed factory representatives, and handed out fliers and hotline numbers. He even wrote an article about the BS for a local environmental newsletter, saying, "On some days when I get out of school I feel so sick from these smells. Even when I'm at school the smells sneak through the windows and make my classmates and myself unable to work, to concentrate."
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So far, though, Pride has found NEMIC's responses unsatisfying. When he asks a question at a NEMIC meeting, the answers are detailed and long-winded - all about weather systems and establishing violation patterns and how it's the responsibility of residents to call complaint lines...all answers that come to the same conclusion: His neighborhood stinks, and it's going to continue to stink.
Pride doesn't understand the odor regulatory process of local and state health departments. He doesn't know about the inefficiency of Reg 2's 29-year-old standards, or about the chummy relationship that state regulators have with factory owners. Nonetheless, he has his opinions about the Big Stink.
"Some people say the factories should move, but I don't think they should, because they'll just impact another environment. The [odor-reducing] technology gets better day by day, so I'm sure there's something they could come up with to fix the problem."
"People in Denver shouldn't have to get used to this," he concludes. "They should do something about it."