Cities That Smell

Some Urban Centers Use Common Scents

There’s a place in Gary, Indiana where you can stand with one foot on a Lake Michigan sand dune and admire fragile wildflowers. With the other foot, you step on a pile of steel-mill slag and watch oil refineries belch orange flames. Most people remember Gary because they drove through it on the interstate during a family vacation, holding their noses with the windows rolled up tight to keep out the rotten-egg smell.

The fact is, some cities stink, and odor affects the image of a place. Some communities have worked hard to get rid of the smells and turn their image around. Tacoma, Washington, for example, is a great success story. Others, like Gary, are still struggling. Still others, like Denver (which has an inversion problem that traps air pollution near the ground) are victims of geography. But even when cities make great strides, it’s hard to shake image problems associated with odor.

"I grew up here, and I remember times in the 1960s when you would have to turn on your headlights because the brown smog was so thick," says Tom Anderson, executive director of Gary’s Save the Dunes Council. "It was virtually not even fit for humans to live and work here." Today, Anderson serves on a government air quality commission that has made great strides to get rid of that rotten-egg stench and make Gary a better place, but the old image still persists.

Bill Baarsma grew up in Tacoma, breathing sulfur fumes at the Asarco copper smelting plant while stately Mt. Rainier decorated the horizon. Back then, the local pulp mill churned out thousands of pounds of caustic air pollution, creating the "Tacoma Aroma." But the mill’s current owner, Simpson Tacoma Kraft Company, made $300 million worth of improvements and got rid of the stink. The Asarco smokestack came down 10 years ago. Baarsma is now mayor, and the city has high-speed computer networks, light rail and world-class architecture, but people still joke that Tacoma is the armpit of Seattle because it smells.

In Denver, developers are turning old warehouses into hip condos. The trendy lower downtown area has sushi bars, day spas and a shop that sells ultra-cool Vespa scooters. Denver is trying to market itself as a sophisticated place for urbanites. But on certain days, when the wind shifts, there’s a hint of cow manure in the air that reminds everyone of the city’s agricultural roots. "It can come as a bit of a surprise because you don’t really think of Denver as a cow town anymore," says Chris Dann, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Bad smells can be a helpful catalyst for change in industrial communities, says John Welke, director of clean air programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Odors can alert regulators and the public to a pollution problem," he says.

Since the Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate odor issues, and state agencies rarely have effective odor laws, citizens must persuade local officials to enforce their nuisance ordinances. But it’s not an easy road because odor impacts are difficult to prove: "Courts are loathe to require businesses to clean up their act unless there is some real level of harm being done," Welke says.

When Ron Novak, director of environmental management in Hammond, Indiana, near Gary, got 700 complaints about odor from a smelly composting facility—everything from nausea and skin irritation to a foul taste in the mouth—he successfully invoked the local nuisance ordinance to shut the plant down. Novak also forced changes at a local roofing company, a can-coating factory and BP Amoco’s wastewater plant.

Gary is not as aggressive as Hammond, but locals like Anderson argue a lot of progress has been made in the city of the Jackson Five and The Music Man. And there’s a lot worth fighting for in the area. Nature lovers value the city’s sand dunes because they’re home to endangered species and offer a fascinating laboratory with a succession of different habitats.

The plants and people of Gary are breathing a little easier since state officials encouraged United States Steel Corporation to install new equipment to reduce odors and air pollution. "The sulfur smell has changed dramatically," says Adriane Blaesing, director of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s Gary office. Anderson, who serves on the governor’s Indiana Pollution Control board, also points to new rules for sinter plants, which recover waste products from steel operations.

Ben Clement, Gary’s director of economic development, says it’s still a challenge to change Gary’s image, which is affected also by high levels of poverty and crime. "When people are depressed because they’re victims of crime or they can’t find a job, they tend not to appreciate their environment, so they might talk negatively to others about our town," he says. "It took a long time for Gary to get this way and it’s going to take longer than two or three weeks to rectify the situation."

At the other end of the spectrum, Tacoma has successfully overcome its image problems. Now, instead of griping about the Tacoma Aroma, city officials are promoting their town as a more charming alternative to the rapid growth of Seattle. "We want a more laid-back way of life," says Baarsma. Like Gary, Tacoma is replacing heavy industry with tourism. As dredging machines remove the heavy metals from a Superfund site near the Thea Foss Waterway, construction crews are poised to build new condos.

For grassroots environmental activist Wendy Church, executive director of the Tacoma-based Citizens for a Healthy Bay, the biggest bright spot lies beneath the city’s Commencement Bay. "People found scallops there, which is great because that is such a pollution-intolerant species," says Church. Baarsma attributes his city’s rebirth in recent years partly to influential Tacoma natives taking power in the state legislature. But he also gives the citizens credit. Instead of giving up, Tacoma residents found a desire to push for change. "We’re proud to live here and we’re moving forward," Baarsma says.