Can’t smell that smell?

If you want to get downtown Columbus something for Christmas, you might choose air freshener.

A pungent odor wafted over downtown for the past week or so, which has been described as a “roasted rotten meat” smell by some Columbus residents, who have complained about it every now and then over the years.

City officials have been trying to identify and get rid of the smell, first mentioned in news reports in the mid-1970s.

Former Columbus mayor Fred Armstrong, who once told constituents that if you work downtown, you’ve smelled it, formed a committee to investigate in 2000.

Three possible offenders were identified over the years — the Columbus Wastewater Treatment Plant; Mariah Foods, 1333 Indiana Ave., which smokes hams, bacon and other products; and Griffin Industries, a former rendering plant at 345 Water St.

When Griffin had not cleaned its air scrubbers or when Mariah is smoking hams, odors tended to resurface, Armstrong said.

Most often, residents have mentioned smelling the odor during summer months, he said.

Residents who are continuing to blame Griffin may be surprised to know that the company is no longer Griffin, but a part of Darling Ingredients, a global company that creates sustainable food, feed and fuel products.

The company no longer does any animal rendering activities in Columbus, transferring that to another of its subsidiaries around the time it took possession of the plant in 2011, said Melissa Gaither, director of investor relations for Darling Ingredients.

The company now processes used cooking oil from restaurants, which is then used in animal feed or the biofuels industry, such as producing renewable diesel or biodiesel, Gaither said.

Gaither said the Darling Ingredients company, based in Irving, Texas, is environmentally conscious and makes sure it abides by all requirements, including the use of air scrubbers at its Columbus plant.

Bill Jones, director of environmental health and safety for Mariah Foods, said the company has not noticed any smelly odors around its plant and doesn’t know where the smell might be coming from.

Mariah Foods hasn’t had a kill or slaughter operation at the Columbus plant for about 20 years, Jones said.

“We do have an air permit for our emissions from our smokehouses where we cook hams and bacon with pure hickory hardwood sawdust,” he said in an email. “Other than that, we do not emit any other odors from our property,” he said.

Keith Reeves, Columbus City Utilities director, said The Republic’s call this week was the first he’s heard about the downtown odor and utility employees hadn’t mentioned it.

He planned to have utility workers check through the downtown sewers to determine whether sewage solids have collected in the system, particularly around areas where the city has combined storm and sanitary sewers.

If that has happened, utility workers can flush out the sewers if needed.

Work on Columbus’ $41.3 million wastewater treatment plant began in June 2009 and was finished in 2011. Part of building a new treatment plant was about eliminating odors from the old sewer plant on Water Street, which was about 300 yards south of City Hall downtown.

About a dozen local residents who were downtown Wednesday afternoon either said they didn’t smell anything or didn’t know anything about the odor.

However, a couple noted the smells usually arrive two times of year, in the spring when the downtown Bradford Pear trees bloom, and in the fall when the rotten meat smell becomes more prominent.

Josh Rooks, a Columbus resident who works as a cook, said most residents know when the clouds get real low and the air isn’t moving, that’s when the smell arrives.

Rooks said he’s used to it and it doesn’t bother him all that much anymore.

One of the roadblocks Columbus has in trying to solve the odor problem is determining whether smells can be regulated by a city, Armstrong said.

For example, some people noted that years ago a noticeable odor came from the intersection of U.S. 31 and Central Avenue, the former site of Dolly Madison’s plant. That odor was the sweet smell of doughnuts and pastries, something that many residents didn’t find offensive.

But is was a discernible odor that people could smell, Armstrong said.

“How do you regulate it when it’s a good odor in one case and a bad odor in another?” Armstrong asked.

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.