Complaints of headaches from metalworking plant
If residents of the Near Southside had their say, the new air permit being issued to the Metalworking Lubricants Co. would contain the strictest of requirements and the costliest of fines when emissions limits were breached. In fact, many residents would like to see all of the company’s permits revoked and an “Out of Business” sign hanging in front of the factory at 1509 S. Senate Ave.
The company produces industrial oils, compounds, greases and other products. Unfortunately for the community, the by-product of the plant’s operations is a stench that drives people indoors and causes concerns for what they are breathing.
The disgusting, intense odor – often resembling natural gas – is routinely smelled around Concord Community Center, Manual High School, Garfield Park, Fountain Square and on the IUPUI campus, where students and faculty complain of headaches, hives and respiratory irritation. Some people have said they were nauseated.
Opinions on health risks of the odor are split. According to Marion County Local Emergency Planning Committee Chairman William Beranek, concentrations typically found in the city air aren’t likely to be noxious.
Citizens Gas has taken more than 100 phone calls from people who believe there is a natural gas leak in the area. Investigations normally reveal that the aroma originates from Metalworking Lubricants.
“We have had a lot of false alarms, with the gas company and fire department responding,” said Dr. Beranek. “The false alarms may development a sense of complacency in people.”
The smell – which many believe is the result of Metalworking Lubricant’s scrubber not properly cleansing the air it emits – has become so common that many residents no longer associate it with a natural gas leak, and that is bothersome to him, who fears a real leak may go unreported. “One of these alarms could be a real one and result in an explosion and kill people. People close to the plant could have a natural gas leak in their house, but because they know Metalworking Lubricants has an odor from time to time, they may not report it.”
The business is no stranger to environmental controversy. An explosion at the plant in 1995 rocked the area, and the company was responsible for a 25,000-gallon above-ground oil spill in 2010. The incident required 850 tons of polluted soil to be disposed of. Despite the volume of the spill, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management claimed that no toxic material was released into the sewer system or any nearby water sources.
As for the odor, Metalworking Lubricants has always been quick to pass the blame to others. But area residents know better. What’s puzzling to them is how successful the company has been at delaying serious action all these years.
Metalworking Lubricants, which has been fined $8,600 over the past three years for resource conservation and recovery act violations (not air), refused comment when approached for this story.
Matthew W. Stuckey, IDEM branch chief, admitted that the government is moving slowly. “We have asked for records, but we have not gotten what we have asked for. We don’t have the resources to continually monitor them. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s the best we can have with our resources.”
IDEM has finished collecting input from the public and will now evaluate the comments over a six-week period before deciding on the type of permit to issue Metalworking Lubricants, which constructed and operated emission units before obtaining a permit.
“The new permit will be more strict,” stressed Dan Goldblatt, IDEM’s public information officer, and fines can be as high as $25,000 a day.
“They have never been a good neighbor,” Gene Parsley said at a hearing Feb. 16 at Manual High School. “They are doing things that they aren’t supposed to do. Why would they be any different in the future? The smell is sickening. Companies are closing up in the area, and others refuse to locate here. There are vacant lots everywhere. They need to be issued a stop-work order. We’ve been fighting them for more than 20 years.
“How can we give them a permit if we don’t know what they are doing. This is kind of like Nancy Pelosi (U.S. representative from California) saying we had to pass the Obamacare legislation so we would know what is in it.”
Parsley was among the 100 or so irate residents who attended the hearing. His sentiments were echoed many times.
“The only favorable outcome for us is if the odor stops,” said Garfield Park resident Jim Simmons. “Nothing else is acceptable. Nobody knows what chemicals that company is putting into the air. I have a large screened-in porch, but I can’t read my paper and drink my coffee out there half of the time because of the disgusting smell. My daughter won’t let my grandchildren come over because she doesn’t want them breathing the air.”
Simmons said the city is well aware of the stench that spews from the factory. Why else would the mayor have asked the company to cease operations during Super Bowl in Indianapolis in 2012. “The city wants clean air for its visitors, but it doesn’t care about its residents. I’m sure the company can control the odor if it chose to, but they don’t.”
David Powell likes to go for walks in his neighborhood, “but the air frequently stinks so bad that I have to go back inside. I would like to know what’s in the air.”
Another resident said she no longer invites people over to her house because she is tired of apologizing for the stench. “Even with air conditioning, the smell permeates my house.”
Lisa Laflin, Mayor Greg Ballard’s neighborhood liaison to the Southside, said she has been receiving emails about the odor since stepping into her current position in 2010. “We need to do the right thing,” she said.
And for area residents, that is the cessation of all foul odors emanating from 1509 S. Senate Ave.