Longform

RiNo neighbors are raising a stink about factory smells in their ’hood

The air smelled like a dead body, the woman said. And she isn't the only one who thinks so. Over the past eight years, the city has received no fewer than 150 complaints about a fetid odor emanating from a brick factory at 33rd and Walnut streets that makes dog chews and pet treats.

August 13, 2002: Caller reports "bad odor in the air. Smells like dead animals or rotten meat."

April 18, 2005: "Caller left message regarding terrible odor. Said he was 'throwing up.'"

May 24, 2010: Caller reports an "odor that smells like a dead rodent. A lot of dead rodents."

June 14, 2011: "Yet again, I report...nauseating odors in my community," a neighbor wrote in an e-mail. "For years, residents have complained to no avail. The RiNo community feels defeated."

Defeated, but not ready to give up. Despite their frustration, the residents of River North — a gritty industrial area with a cute nickname (RiNo) that's also home to artists and an increasing number of young professionals with barbecue grills and chocolate labs — kept complaining.

For more grievances, read "'Smells like dead animals' and other complaints made about a pet treat factory in RiNo."

In April this year, the city took action. It issued an odor citation to Kasel Associates Industries, known to its neighbors as the "Pig Ear Factory" because it uses pig ears in its products. The state and city had attempted the same in 2005, but Kasel fought it and won. This time, the inspectors had a new weapon: a clause added to Denver's air-pollution ordinance that allows a citation to be issued if the Department of Environmental Health receives five smell complaints from different households within a twelve-hour period and "verifies the source of the odor."

That's what happened in RiNo on March 19. After confirming the complaints, the city told Kasel Associates Industries that the smell of cooking pet treats was going to cost it $500.

But the company's owner, Ray Kasel, wasn't about to roll over. He hired a lawyer and appealed the citation, arguing that the complaining neighbors were untrustworthy and that the wind direction on the allegedly smelly day made it impossible for the odor to be coming from his factory. The hearing officer assigned to the case didn't buy it. Neither did the city's Board of Environmental Health, which upheld the citation.

Now Kasel is suing the city in federal court for conspiring against him, harassing him and violating his constitutional property rights. Also named in the lawsuit are three employees of the Department of Environmental Health, including manager and former city councilman Doug Linkhart; three complaining neighbors; city councilwoman Judy Montero; and Montero's former assistant, Stephanie Syner, whom Kasel accuses of drumming up the complaints.

Their actions, Kasel asserts in the suit, "constituted an unlawful conspiracy to defame [his] reputation" and led to "annoyance, inconvenience, stigma...[and] litigation costs."

But the neighbors insist it's Kasel who really stinks.

"We know we live in an industrial area and there is some give-and-take," says Jennifer Kramer-Wine, who owns a condo in RiNo across the street from the factory. "This was over the top. Upton Sinclair kept popping in my head. Like, 'What were they doing?'"

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Kasel Associates Industries was founded in 1986, as Kasel Mechanical Service, "to serve the refrigeration and boiler needs of the local food processing industry," according to its website. It moved to 33rd and Walnut three years later. Over time, the company diversified and changed names. In addition to making pet treats that are sold at Costco, Sam's Club, Petco and Target, Kasel Associates manufactures meat slicers.

Back then, the area — two blocks from the railroad tracks and less than half a mile from the South Platte River — was a sea of old industry; zoning maps show a mostly homogenous neighborhood set aside for "heavy industrial." Today it's still home to a sausage factory, a company that cleans septic tanks, and a corned beef processor.

Artist studios are allowed in industrial areas, and RiNo boosters say there were several at the time that Kasel Associates moved in. But new residential dwellings are forbidden. In 1985, however, developer Jerry Glick and his business partner won a zoning change for a project they dubbed Silver Square, at 33rd and Blake streets, across the street from where Kasel is now located. It involved transforming a brick complex once used to manufacture sugar-refining machinery into lofts where artists could live and work.

"It was a junkyard at the time we bought it — literally a junkyard, with junkyard dogs," Glick says. He'd admired live-work lofts in other cities and realized there were none in Denver. Unsure if the idea would take off, Glick and his business partner started slow, building just a dozen lofts. "We didn't know if anybody would live in the neighborhood," he says now.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar