What's that smell? Reports of foul odor in Westerville

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Dozens of people living in a Columbus suburb say they're choking on dirty air. 10 Investigates tracks the powerful odors and gets answers from state officials.

  • Headache and nausea complaints coming from Westerville-area residents
  • Complaints spike when Scioto Materials ramps up asphalt production
  • City of Westerville smells odors, but Ohio EPA says they can’t smell emissions


TOWN HALL MEETING

The meeting was at an uptown Westerville coffee shop. A dozen Westerville-area residents gathered around a long table to share their accounts of what made them think twice about living in the city: industrial odors.

“I won't let my grandkids, when I have them, when I smell it, I won't let them outside and there's something very wrong about that,” said Bobbi Jo Hoak.

“I sometimes smell a heavy metal smell, a tar-like smell,” recounted Pam Clegg.

Amy Ashburn added, “I now take allergy meds and I have never had allergies before in my life. It's terrible. You can't use the leisure path. The emissions from these places really prohibit you from doing that.”

“If I'm getting this burning smell in my lungs, she's getting probably doubly as bad because she’s developing,” said Leah Adkins, mother of an infant girl. “There is a burning smell. It's a sweet odor, almost.”

When asked to raise their hands if they regretted living in Westerville, every one of the dozen residents had their hands up.

Leading the meeting was neighbor Jenny Morgan.



NEIGHBORHOOD CRUSADER

Jenny Morgan, children’s music teacher by profession, has immersed herself in industrial production reports and state inspections. Morgan is now appealing to the Ohio 10th District Court of Appeals to compel the Ohio EPA to open up their records. Ohio EPA claims that emails between staff members copied to state legal staff concerning Westerville emission complaints are not open to public records requests.

“Children need to get out in nature every day. It's important for their health,” said Morgan walking near her Westerville home.

“It's heartbreaking because I have to close my windows, I have to close my doors. I have to stay inside until the smell is out of the air,” said Morgan.

Every morning she smells asphalt odors, Morgan emails a complaint to the city of Westerville and the Ohio EPA. As of now, she counts 60 complaints sent over the past several years.



WESTERVILLE POWERLESS

"We continue to smell the odors from time to time and the city of Westerville. We take our resident's concerns seriously,” said Bryan Wagner with Westerville Code Enforcement.

10 Investigates obtained city records that show Westerville inspectors repeatedly smelled industrial odors coming from asphalt facilities. In just one two-month period, inspectors smelled asphalt odors six times in residential neighborhoods throughout the southern half of Westerville. Inspectors labeled it “a moderate odor.”

“Hot asphalt smells, and on occasion, mulch smells” recalled Wagner.

The city of Westerville is powerless to take action on its resident’s complaints because the facilities are outside Westerville city boundaries.

“The clean air regulations are state and federal regulations enforceable by the Ohio EPA,” said Wagner.



PASSING INSPECTIONS

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency tests industrial emissions for permitted facilities every five years. The last results showed Scioto Materials failed their first test during their last testing series in 2015. They passed their second Ohio EPA inspection months later.

"They were issued a notice of violation for a failed stack test for carbon monoxide,” recalled Ohio EPA’s Bryon Marusek.

While the Ohio EPA received repeated complaints from Jenny Morgan and other Westerville-area residents, state inspectors denied detecting any strong odors.

“We were out and did over 860 observations for odor on 159 different days during actual production of asphalt,” said Marusek. “At no point did we find, based on the experience of those doing the observations, what would be a strong odor. In absence of a strong odor, we don't have what constitutes a nuisance.”


SCIOTO MATERIALS STATEMENT

“Our permit requires periodic stack testing to verify that all pollutants emitted from the plant are below permit limits established by the Ohio EPA to protect human health. Asphalt plants generally will emit some smells, but our stack tests have demonstrated compliance with these standards,” wrote Scioto Materials spokesperson Lee Schloss III in an emailed statement.

“As in the past, when Scioto Materials receives a complaint, we investigate the situation based on the information provided by the caller to assure the plant is still operating within compliance of the permit. We have always cooperated with the Ohio EPA when they respond to complaints and we will continue to do so,” added Schloss.

Scioto Materials denied a request for an interview and a tour of their facilities.


THE NOSE KNOWS

10 Investigates drove around Westerville-area neighborhoods trying to detect asphalt production odors. After receiving resident complaints during mornings of Scioto Materials asphalt production, 10 Investigates did detect smells in the same areas where residential and Westerville city inspection complaints appeared to cluster.

Scioto Materials is located at 6187 Westerville Road, just south of Interstate 270. During multiple days in September and October, 10 Investigates smelled odors in the areas of Park Meadow Rd and S Knox Street, E Walnut Street and S Spring Rd. Asphalt production is suspended for the winter season.

On one occasion, after smelling apparent asphalt odors for a half-hour, this reporter began feeling a slight headache. That is consistent with what neighbors said they experienced after breathing in the asphalt odors for more than a few minutes.



A PLAN FOR CHANGE

"I see a lot of similarities. And I think if the citizens of Westerville stick together, they'll win this. I always tell community groups that it takes constant pressure, constantly applied," said Teresa Mills with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

Mills lead the 16-year struggle for residents of south Columbus complaining of odors coming from the Columbus trash burning power plant and the animal rendering plant near Interstate 71 and Highway 104.

"It was more nausea. Even the Ohio Department of Health would say they had to roll up their windows when they would drive by the plant because the odor is so horrendous,” recalled Mills.

Mills and a coalition of south Columbus residents got both locations shut down for repeated air quality violations. Mills says years of constant neighborhood complaints to the Ohio EPA lead them to declare the rendering plant “a public nuisance” in 2007.

"That's what really made the difference - was when the people became involved. They finally - the agency finally did something," said Mills.

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If you smell strong odors in your neighborhood and want to file a complaint with the Ohio EPA, click here.

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