Dinner on the terrace? First, hold back the stench

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – Parts of downtown Des Moines have been transformed so much over the past decade by new apartments, trendy boutiques and microbreweries that it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the present with a not so distant past.

But a strong reminder of the city’s heritage remains: the stench. A pungent smell of rancid meat regularly floats through the entire shiny new development, a reminder of the region’s less polished history as a pork processing center.

“You can’t escape it,” said Brandon Brown, president of the Des Moines Downtown Neighborhood Association, calling it “very frustrating.”

Many cities eager for new investment and vitality have welcomed urban housing and entertainment venues to older parts of the city that were home to more gritty industries, only to be baffled by what happens when someone like Brown , who has moved into an upscale apartment downtown, actually wants to enjoy a latte or meal on an outdoor patio.

After decades of downplaying or simply ignoring the problem, officials at Des Moines recently launched an in-depth study that will lead to stricter regulations on some smelly manufacturing plants to finally clean the air.

Similar difficulties arise in other cities with smelly businesses, especially rendering plants which are common in agricultural areas and even in some large cities. Angry residents are flooding officials with complaints and lawsuits, while some large companies install new equipment, make payments to neighbors, or even shut down.

No one is following such disputes, but Jacek Koziel, a professor at Iowa State University who studies air quality and livestock odors, said he believes the conflicts could escalate. Sometimes, like in Des Moines, it’s because more noses are closer to bad smells, but in other places it’s residents just pushing harder for change.

“It’s very common in this environment of animal agriculture in general and meat packing plants or feed processing plants,” Koziel said. ” It’s very hard. For us engineers, we know that there are technologies to minimize the impact, but then all the tax realities come with doing so. “

In Des Moines, residents and workers have complained for decades about the smells of an industrial area just over a mile from downtown, describing the smell as putrid or akin to animal waste. Brown takes a more charitable point of view, calling the smell “yeast”.

People generally blame two companies: pork processor Pine Ridge Farms and the Darling Ingredients rendering plant. Although the city created an odor board and an odor helpline, its efforts were ineffective and largely abandoned until recently, when people who moved into expensive apartments that had replaced warehouses and junkyards have complained of foul smells periodically settling in their neighborhoods.

City officials agree there is a problem, but say they need more data before deciding what to do.

“You have to know what the truth is, and then make the plans work for each of the industries,” said SuAnn Donovan, deputy director of the Des Moines neighborhood services department. The new study will take air samples and determine a baseline for air quality.

Iowa is an agricultural powerhouse, and Donovan is quick to note that the city wants to work with Pine Ridge, Darling, and other businesses.

Darling did not respond to an investigation into its operations in Des Moines.

Pine Ridge Farms is owned by meat industry giant Smithfield, which said in a statement that its pork plant, which employs about 1,000 people, opened in 1937 and slaughters about 4,000 hogs a day. As more people moved nearby, the company said it had invested millions of dollars in new technology, such as air handling equipment, to reduce odors.

“We also follow a rigorous daily cleaning program during and after each production cycle,” the statement said. “At the end of each week, we do a deep top-to-bottom cleaning to keep odors to a minimum. “

Even with efforts to reduce odors, rendering is a particularly pungent activity. Factories use heat, centrifuges, and other techniques to convert animal tissue waste into fats and proteins for many uses, including as feed, fertilizer, and cosmetics. There are over 200 factories in the United States and Canada, according to recent estimates.

In Fresno, California, a group of citizens filed a lawsuit against a Darling rendering plant that produced such a strong odor that residents complained of health issues. Last year, the company agreed to close the plant. Another rendering plant near Rancho Cordova, a suburb of Sacramento, which had been operating for more than 50 years also chose to close after finding it could not coexist with new housing nearby.

Rendering plants in an industrial area in Los Angeles have been ordered to adhere to tough new rules. And in Denver, where new urban development has been particularly important, there have been fierce clashes between new residents and old industries.

“People who move in are smart and aren’t afraid to complain,” said Greg Thomas, the city’s environmental quality manager.

Residents of South St. Paul, Minnesota have filed a class action lawsuit against fumes from a rendering plant, and neighbors have received payments of up to $ 1,000 in $ 750,000 settlement .

However, odors of rancid meat persist.

“The lawsuit didn’t seem to make a difference,” said Chris Robinson, who lives less than a mile from the factory. “As late as last night my husband couldn’t sit on the deck. It’s still very bad.

Brown, of Des Moines, said with new outdoor projects underway, from a football stadium to a whitewater rafting course, the city has little choice but to clean the air.

“You don’t want the smell to contaminate the experience,” Brown said.


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