Sewer Officials’ Response Really Stinks

A photo of a sewage treatment plant with odor cloud graphics added

A photo of a sewage treatment plant with odor cloud graphics added

Kathy Hines is fighting an uphill battle. A resident of southwest Winston-Salem, Ms. Hines is trying to get the city/county Utilities Division to stop stinking up her life. For some time now, Hines has been complaining about sewer odors emanating from a wastewater treatment plant near her home. Just how bad is the odor? “How would you want to live in a place that smells like a dump?” she told Winston-Salem Journal reporter Fran Daniel. And the smell isn’t just an outside problem. It also permeates the inside of houses in Hines’ Griffith Park neighborhood, as well as throughout the Millhaven Landing subdivision.

Courtney Driver, director of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Utilities Division, says that the smelly gases pose no health risk. But try telling that to Ms. Hines. “My eyes burn and my nostrils burn, so I’m not sure why they think it’s not bothersome to anyone health-wise.” Hines has presented petitions to Driver’s department, but, thus far, the daily odors haven’t abated. What’s worse, it’s not an isolated problem.

On Saturday morning, April 3, 2017, my wife and I awoke to an overpowering sewer smell throughout our Kernersville home. I tried to isolate the source of the smell, but it was everywhere. I walked out onto the street to investigate further, but I was not alone. Residents from throughout the neighborhood had come outside to see if there had been a break in a natural gas line. Calls went out to fire and police departments, but none of the responders could explain the smell. I called Dave Plyler, Chairman of the County Commissioners, and Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines to see what could be done about the situation. Several hours later I received an email from one of Driver’s staff who told me they had been having trouble with odor scrubbers at a nearby pumping station, and that the equipment was scheduled to be examined by the manufacturer later in the week.

Meanwhile I learned that an identical incident had occurred on a Sunday morning two months earlier. On that day, businesses along South Main Street in Kernersville reported what they believed to be was a gas leak, and parishioners at a nearby Triad church were wondering if they should evacuate. Eventually it was discovered that the smell had come from the same pumping station that caused the problem in my neighborhood. So much for maintaining faulty scrubbers. In both cases, there were reports of people experiencing burning eyes, sore throats, and trouble breathing.

The odor problem seemed to abate after the April incident, but then on Sunday morning, September 23, 2018, it was back in full force. I called and emailed a complaint to Driver at 11:30am. I finally received a response from Utilities staffer Frank Crump at 8:32pm that night. It took nine hours for him to respond to a complaint about an odor that was having an effect on the health of residents.

In our back-and-forth correspondences, Crump first tried to blame the odor on weather and “changes in humidity”. Then he pledged to investigate the scrubbers to see if they were acting up again. The next day, Crump still had no explanation, nor a plan for preventing another smell attack. In my email exchanges with Mr. Crump I had also asked if any city/county personnel worked at the pumping station on weekends. “Unfortunately we do not have staff working during weekends or holidays at these facilities,” he replied. I asked what residents are supposed to do when an incident occurs. He advised that we should go on the internet and search for the municipal link to register a complaint. Of course not everyone has access to the internet, but it wouldn’t matter if they did, because my calls and emails resulted in a nine-hour delay in response time, and with no solution.

It has now been two years since the South Main street incident, and city/county officials are still sitting on their hands, offering the same explanations:

  • The weather and humidity might be to blame;
  • We have an equipment problem that is being investigated;
  • The release of hydrogensulfates is at an acceptable level; and,
  • The smelly gases pose no health concerns.

But never fear because Courtney Driver has a solution. She wants Ms. Hines and the rest of us to tour the wastewater treatment plants so that we can better appreciate the intricacies of sewer smells. Ms. Driver’s tone-deaf generosity, like the odors she presides over, simply takes my breath away.


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