ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — If you smelled something strange outside your home, who would you call? Reports show that for years when people in St. Petersburg’s Childs Park neighborhood smelled foul odors, many times they called 911 to report it to the fire department.
What You Need To Know
- Reports show that for years when people in St. Petersburg’s Childs Park neighborhood smelled foul odors, many times they called 911 to report it to the fire department
- Through grant funding last year, the city of St. Pete purchased purple air monitors to allow Childs Park neighborhood residents to monitor air quality
- But community leaders said the monitors they really need have to be more precise
- DOCUMENTS: Download Here (ZIP)
Eckerd College Chemistry Professor Polina Maciejczyk got wind of the neighborhood’s smell complaints, and started trying to trace and identify it with help from her students.
“The scope of our program is to determine what source of molecules are excessive in this neighborhood,” Maciejczyk said. “We started in September, and we sampled on average three times a week.”
Every time they visit the neighborhood, they use their noses and monitoring devices. One of her students described the odor there as a chemical smell.
Maciejczyk and her students use the monitoring devices they have on hand, but she said they don’t have the air quality monitoring devices they really need in order to identify some harmful pollutants like volatile organic compounds.
“You say that sounds pretty scary, how come nobody’s investigating this? It costs a lot of money to investigate every single particle out there and every single volatile organic compound,” said Maciejczyk. “Those monitors are very rare and they’re not present here.”
Through grant funding last year, the city of St. Pete purchased purple air monitors to allow Childs Park neighborhood residents to monitor air quality. But community leaders said the monitors they really need have to be more precise.
Spectrum Bay News 9 contacted the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and was then directed to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. They then pointed Spectrum Bay News 9 to Pinellas County’s Air Quality Division.
The county also monitors the air. At one of Pinellas County's air quality monitoring sites they don’t measure all pollutants either.
The monitoring sites only check these air pollutants that are a part of the EPA’s air quality standards:
- Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5)
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
- Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
- Lead (Pb)
While the sites don’t monitor every potentially harmful particle in the air, Pinellas County Air Quality Control Division Manager Sheila Schneider said it’s still the county’s job to make sure the air is clean.
But she emphasizes they don’t actually test the air.
“The testing that we do is not related to finding problems at a specific source,” Schneider said.
When asked who finds those specific problems, Schneider elaborated. “Consulting firms. We’re a regulatory agency. And I’m not saying we can’t do anything about it, but we are tasked with making sure the facilities that have permits stay in compliance with those permits,” she said.
Childs Park is home to several industrial facilities.
Out of the five companies with air permits in the Childs Park industrial corridor, two handle either used oil or petroleum.
According to the county’s odor complaints from the last year, one company was listed several times.
In one odor complaint from October 2022, an air quality division inspector detailed how he traced a reported natural gas smell in the neighborhood back to Howco Environmental Services. The inspector said he “instantly got hit with a very potent dose of the same odor.”
The company responded to that complaint saying, “On the date of the observed complaint, HOWCO was in process of testing the effectiveness of various process improvements that were made in our continuing effort to minimize and/or eliminate any potential odors from being generated as a result of our water treatment process. On or about October 3rd, 2022, HOWCO contracted with an outside consulting firm that specializes in waste water treatment. The objective was to review/audit our internal procedures and processing equipment to ensure we are performing best practices and that our process equipment was operating effectively and efficiently.”
In March, the same company received a violation notice after another confirmed odor complaint. In both incidents, they were later found in compliance.
Spectrum Bay News 9 reached out to Howco for a comment and officials forwarded this violation response letter addressed to the county. In it officials said, “Howco does not believe it is the source of the odors that are the subject of neighbors’ complaints as have been documented but has worked to address potential sources related to its operation. The fact that this issue is intermittent and sporadic suggests it’s not the result of routine operations at the Howco facilities. But a result of other contributors in the surrounding area.”
Meanwhile, residents said the odor persists, leaving them in limbo.
It’s not a position Dr. Richard Schulterbrandt Gragg said any community wants to be in.
“When we say, ‘I don’t want it in my backyard,’ it’s not just because it doesn’t look good. It will have an impact on the economic value of your community, but even more importantly, it has an impact on your health,” he said.
Schulterbrandt Gragg is an environmental science professor at Florida A&M University and an environmental justice expert with the Florida Brownfields Association.
He said environmental justice for residents in places like Childs Park is possible, but it’s going to require access to money — and lots of it.
“One of the difficulties for communities is that they don’t have the capacity to access these funds and manage these funds, so the EPA is announcing grants to create what they call technical assistance centers,” Schulterbrandt Gragg said. “They’re all across the country, and they will help communities access these funds.”
He said the Florida Brownfields Association plans to help communities across the state access that funding. The grants could pay for things like those scientific studies and hire consulting firms that have more advanced air quality monitors needed in Childs Park.
The official Smell Something, Say Something campaign is over, but residents say the smell is still there. The county’s air quality department is urging people who smell something to submit an air quality complaint.
Download documents that pertain to this part of our 3 part series.