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Raising a stink

Fellowship Story Showcase

Raising a stink

Picture of Cara DeGette

The smell of chemicals in Globeville, Colo., isn't a constant presence. But residents there have long questioned what potential health risks might accompany them. Cara DeGette produced this story as part of a 2012 National Health Journalism Fellowship. Other parts of this series can be found here:

A battle for justice, in Denver’s ‘last frontier’

‘Going up against more money than God’

A loncheria cart in the parking lot of a tire store in Globeville. Credit: Stephen Swofford
The Colorado Public News
Thursday, January 24, 2013

It smells like tar. It’s strong, and comes without warning, once a month, sometimes more, sometimes in the dead of the night. Some describe it as the smell of chemicals, or mothballs. One theory is that it’s caused by asphalt, being heated too fast, at too hot temperatures. It’s not always there, but when it is, you can’t miss it. It’s noticeably worse, and more frequent, in the summer.

Margaret and Robert Escamilla will be in their backyard, tending one of their three gardens, or firing up the barbecue, and, suddenly, a stink bomb lands in the neighborhood. The Escamillas have the drill down: they run inside, close all their windows, and wait it out.

In some parts of Globeville, these routine airborne assaults have been happening for years. Jessica Romero-Wagner explains: “OK, so we moved into Globeville in late 2006. This was our dream house: A 1940s bungalow, with perfect wood floors.”

They bought their home in the winter. The following summer, their first child, a boy named Benjamin, arrived. And so did the force of the industrial-strength odor. “It was just this overwhelming chemical smell,” Romero-Wagner says.

She would get “horrible headaches, horrible, horrible headaches.” Her baby had coughing fits until his lips turned blue. Often on hot nights they couldn’t leave their windows open. They slept in the basement, “the only place cool enough for us to sleep.”

Romero-Wagner canvassed the rest of her neighborhood and no, she wasn’t imagining things. Her neighborhood is surrounded by industrial activity, most of it immediately to the west, on the other side of Interstate 25. Still, Romero thought, this was ridiculous. There are laws, right?

One time, in the middle of the night, she bundled up her baby and followed her nose to where she was pretty sure was the source: the nearby Owens Corning Trumbull plant, which manufactures roofing and asphalt. State health department records indicate several odor-related complaints against the company in recent years. Neighbors have lodged similar complaints against Koppers, Inc., also nearby, which coats railroad ties with creosote.

Globeville is certainly not the only Denver neighborhood whose residents complain about bad odors. The historic Swansea-Elyria neighborhood next door is the site of the National Western Stock Show every January. It’s also home to the famously smelly Purina puppy chow factory. Other surrounding neighborhoods have lodged complaints about industrial manufacturers emitting intolerable odors.

The smell of chemicals wasn’t a constant presence. But Romero-Wagner and other Globeville residents have long questioned what potential health risks might accompany them. She complained to her city councilwoman, Judy Montero; to her state senator, Pat Steadman; and to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. “When we started raising a stink about it, it would last for an hour or two at a time, and then it went down to about 20 to 30 minutes at a time,” she says.

Over the next four years, Romero-Wagner and others say, officials with the state air pollution division insisted there wasn’t anything they could do. How could that be?

Sen. Steadman explains what, for him, became a frustrating chain of events: No. 1. Yes, there were complaints from people living in Globeville about noxious odors. And yes, No. 2. There are laws on the books prohibiting noxious odors. But, he says, No. 3. This particular experience taught him that such laws are nearly impossible to enforce. State air pollution officials informed him, he says, that odors, as they are wont to do, waft around. And so, by the time any investigators might arrive on the scene, the smell is likely to be long gone.

“This certainly highlights environmental justice issues, where low-income neighborhoods are next to stinky asphalt plants,” says Steadman. “I really sympathize with the neighbors. Some of those families have been there longer than the companies.”

Five months ago, on Aug. 8, 2012, Denver councilwomen Montero and Debbie Ortega wrote a letter to state health department asking for help. The ongoing odors in Globeville, they wrote, “have been reported as getting worse again.”

“We are very concerned that the quality of life of Globeville residents has been affected by ongoing air pollution and want to ensure that they are being served by laws in place to prevent such harm to the community,” the officials wrote.

Speaking generally, Christopher Gann, public relations officer for the state air pollution division of the state health department, says the department monitors the air quality on a statewide basis, to ensure Colorado is meeting the standards of the federal Clean Air Act. Specific companies that emit pollutants, however, must obtain permits. Then, they self-report the levels of pollutants they emit. Depending on the size and the product manufactured by the company, inspectors conduct on-site inspections between once a year and once every five years.

Gann says that the state follows up on complaints that are logged. However, people who experience terrible odors are also encouraged to call their countyhealth department.

Records indicate that in the past decade, 23 complaints have been lodged with the state health department against Koppers, Incorporated. Those complaints range from descriptions of smells like mothballs to burning rubber to creosote coming from the plant. In 2007, the state Air Pollution Control Division found several violations of air quality laws and regulations.

According to the settlement agreement, Koppers agreed to pay $41,063 in penalties. However, it was noted the fine does “not constitute an admission of violation of the air quality laws by Koppers.” A Koppers spokeswoman in Pittsburgh says the plant has made several improvements since then.

Many other complaints about bad smells are never fully explained. After all, by the time a state investigator arrives on scene following a complaint – if they go to the scene at all – the smell will likely be gone. And generally, documents show, inspectors follow up on an odor complaint by calling the alleged source of the odor and asking them what’s going on.

For example, consider this Oct. 19, 2011 complaint filed with the state. At 11:20 a.m., a strong odor was reported coming from the Koppers plant the night before. “Complainant stated she smelled a strong creosote odor at approximately 10 p.m. the previous night. Did not want to leave her name or number, just wanted to have a complaint logged into our system.”

According to the log, the state health inspector, T. Lovell, investigated by doing the following: “Called Michael McHugh of Koppers on 10/19. He stated that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on last night. Everything was closed up by 7 p.m. that night.”

Here’s another complaint, this one from a Feb. 4, 2010 report about the Owens Corning Trumbull asphalt plant. The call was logged by the state health department at 8:30 p.m. from someone complaining of strong “burning rubber” odors. “Complainant believes the source is the Owens Corning roofing plant or asphalt plant.” Four days later, the investigation was assigned to Jason Long, who called up the plant for an explanation. Long duly noted the supervisor’s following response: “ ‘On the evening of 2/4 we were oxidizing, making adhesives, unloading raw materials, and no loading of any trucks, no pouring.’ No issues or malfunctions [were] reported at either plant.”

That appears to be the end of the matter.

Romero-Wagner says she testified in a legislative committee about her family’s repeated exposure to the chemical smell. She went to a meeting hosted by Councilwoman Montero involving officials and representatives from the asphalt plant. She worked with Michael Harris, the director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, whose students were investigating.

On Dec. 16, 2009, the young lawyers wrote extensive letters to the director of the state air pollution control division. They detailed odors allegedly stemming from the Owens Corning plant. They expressed concern that the company had applied for a permit to allow for even higher levels of hydrogen sulfide “a notoriously odorous and unhealthy chemical.” Those levels, the students noted, have been proven unsafe for humans.

Harris and his students did notch what he calls “a minor victory,” and the permit was denied. But officials from Owens Corning Trumbull, as well as air pollution officials, have consistently maintained that they are operating within their approved permit.

“We don’t believe the odor is emanating from [our] plant,” says Tim Bold, Owens Corning site leader. The company’s own investigation, Bold says, has determined the likely culprit is another business in the area. But, he declined to identify his suspect.

Law professor Harris thinks Denver, and Colorado, can do better. Far better. Many cities, and some states, he says, have installed requirements for industrial manufacturers to incorporate new technologies to ensure bad smells don’t waft into residential neighborhoods. So why not Globeville?

Harris, like Steadman and others, notes that in more affluent Denver neighborhoods – like Washington Park or Park Hill or University Hills – industrial odors like this would not be tolerated for six months, much less six years.

“It’s a classic political disempowerment,” Harris says. “Businesses have a lot of clout … What we’re trying to do [in Globeville] is get folks to start flexing their muscles for their communities and for a better environment.”

Two years ago, Romero-Wagner became pregnant again with her second son, Nicholas. “I just couldn’t have another baby under those conditions,” she says. She and her husband and young family sold their home and moved away from Globeville, because of the toxic smell. “I still love that house, and the community is amazing over there,” she says. “But there was no way. Just no way.”

For the past several years, the environmental group Groundwork Denver, has been working in Globeville, cleaning up graffiti, packing out trash, planting trees and building a community garden. As executive director Wendy Hawthorne puts it, one thing just seems to lead to another.

So far they have reached out to 200 homeowners to install insulation and make homes more energy efficient. There are efforts to improve the disjointed travel corridors and provide better access to trails and other recreational amenities along the South Platte River. “We learned early on that many people didn’t realize the Platte River was even there,” she says.

One ambitious project involves reclaiming a 5.5-acre parcel of land whose majority owner right now is Xcel Energy. The plan is to transform it into a park.

“It’s going to be a natural area, with natural grasses and a playground with boulders and natural things kids can play on, and wheelchair-accessible walking trails,” Hawthorne says. “It will be a place where anyone in the neighborhood can reconnect with nature and get some exercise in a passive, easygoing way.”

The response from some residents was, “it’s great what you’re doing, but we can’t breathe,” Hawthorne says.

Groundwork Denver approached the state health department about the odor. All the surrounding industries were in compliance, they were told.

“Maybe they’re in compliance, but how is it that people can’t breathe?” Hawthorne wonders. Groundwork decided to take matters into their own hands. The organizationapplied for a grant to figure out what the smell is and where it’s coming from.

These days, the Escamillas have a new routine. They have a wind monitor in their backyard. When the smell hits, Robert Escamilla runs outside to the garage, and pulls out the air testing equipment from a plastic bin. The two-part process involves collecting a sample smell into a metal canister, as well as a plastic tube. The samples are then sent, within 24 hours, to Utah for testing.

In 1989, when the Escamillas agreed to become lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit that forced the multinational corporation Asarco to clean up their neighborhood, they were 35 years old. Their daughter, Juay, was 9, and her son, Joaquin, was 15 years old. Their battle was a fierce one, and took its toll.

The couple endured the attacks from neighbors, for maligning their community and its main employer, the smelter owned by Asarco. Margaret has had back surgery, and Robert has arthritis. They are both now 59 years old.

Their saga has taken them through a generation, four Colorado governors and four Denver mayors. And it’s not over.

It’s been 112 years since Globeville was annexed into Denver. On a recent day, Escamilla gestured behind her house. “Our alley still isn’t even paved,” she says.

Back in the old days, there used to be an expression, used by optimists and gee whiz marketers who promoted life’s greatest possibilities in Denver, the Queen City of the Plains:

“The streets of Denver are paved with gold.”

That slogan was laced with truth, thanks to Globeville. In the early days of Colorado’s mining economy, the smelting process was far from perfected. And so it was, that flecks and traces of gold and other precious metals from the riches that came from Colorado’s mountain mines– along with all the toxic heavy metals used in the smelting process – were left behind in the slag residue. In the early 1900s, that slag heap at the giant Globeville smelter grew to enormous proportions. Denver decided to cart it off and use it to pave the streets of the rest of the growing city.

The irony of all the money that’s flowed through Globeville – with so little of it staying in Globeville – is not lost on Dave Oletski, the president of the Globeville Civic Association.  His grandfather immigrated to Globeville nearly a century ago, to work at the smelter.

“All that prosperity sucked all this money out,” Oletski says.  He likens his neighborhood to a bountiful Thanksgiving feast, consumed by people who left behind a sink full of dirty dishes.

“Well, guess what?” he says. “Someone has to clean up.”

This story was originally published in The Colorado Public News on January 23, 2013

Photo Credit: Stephen Swofford