The air on Scottsbluff’s southeastern side has long carried a wide array of aromas.
On certain mornings, the smell of roasting chicory wafts through the neighborhood known as East Overland. On other days, it’s the scent of sweet burning cigarettes or Tootsie Rolls from a factory that processes sugar beets.
But east winds this fall and spring have often carried an unpleasant bouquet with a mysterious source.
“Sometimes it smells a lot like dog feces around here,” said Rev. Jonathon Sorensen of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. “It was really, really bad this past fall. Very strong ... I would walk out of the church at the end of mass and it would just hit you.”
Astrid Munn, a Scottsbluff attorney who grew up in the neighborhood, said on the worst days the smell was acrid and “one rung below burning.”
“It will knock the wind out of you,” she said.
Some community members pointed to a wastewater evaporation pond at the Western Sugar Co-op, a century-old facility where beets harvested each autumn get weighed, sampled, chopped and turned into sugar.
But Western Sugar Vice President Heather Luther, who is based in Denver, says the pond has been unjustly besmirched.
“We had our team go out and walk the facility to see if there were any odor issues, and we’re fairly confident the odor is not coming from our site. We think it is probably attributed to other ponds in the area of other landowners,” Luther said.
The Panhandle Public Health District has received at least one complaint about the smell and passed that information on to the state Department of Environmental Quality, said Health District Director Kim Engel.
The state has not investigated the odor because it has not received a direct complaint from a resident, spokesman Brian McManus said. NDEQ does not regulate odors, but does regulate certain chemicals that have odors.
A NDEQ inspector noted odor in the area of the pond while investigating an unrelated spill in which the wall of a different holding pond breached, allowing muddy water full of calcium carbonate to spill into ditches that discharge into the North Platte River, McManus said.
Smelly or not, the pond’s days are numbered. Western Sugar is working on plans to update its wastewater treatment system, which includes removing the pond, to meet requirements of its discharge permit, said NDEQ section supervisor Reuel Anderson.
Anderson said removal of the pond has nothing to do with how it smells. No deadlines have been set for removal, although informal discussions have pointed to next spring.
Scottbluff Mayor Randy Meininger and Scotts Bluff County Commissioner Mark Reichert, who represents the area where the Western Sugar facility is located, both said they haven’t gotten complaints about the smell.
Odor, they said, is a part of life in an agriculture state.
“Our entire region is cattle and farming and the sugar factory and chicory. To isolate one industry out, I would not have the expertise to answer that question,” Meininger said.
“I’ve lived here all my life. I don’t know if there is more smells one way or the other.”