WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.Have you ever had this experience driving on the toll-road toward Northwest Indiana: “What is that smell? Whew, roll up the window.” You want to get that window up quickly because of an unpleasant odor. What is that smell? As part of our Chicago Matters series, Growing Forward, Chicago Public Radio’s Northwest Indiana reporter Michael Puente set out to get the answer.
Sherry Jackim’s young boys love to fish, especially with their grandfather.
They often cast their reels into what’s known as Amaizo channel which connects Lake Michigan to Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana just over the state line from Chicago.
Sometimes though, this spot can get too smelly, even for nature lovers.
JACKIM: It smells like rotten eggs sometimes. I mean it’s very, very potent. I can smell it right away.
Jackim, who’s 29, grew up just a couple of blocks from the channel in the Robertsdale neighborhood of north Hammond.
JACKIM: Around here, like the region, it’s all industrial, East Chicago, Hammond, Whiting. It goes all the way out to Valpo. It’s the whole region.
SMOLKA: Ah, there’s a good strong one. Did you get that whiff? That was rotten eggs.
That’s retired scientist George Smolka, of nearby Griffith, Indiana, who set off on a sort of smelling tour of the area with me a couple of weeks ago.
And there were a lot of different odors: The fermenting corn smell from one company mixed with soap product from a factory at the Illinois-Indiana border; the gasoline-y aroma as you pass the massive BP refinery in Whiting; to the soot smell from the steel mills in Gary.
Near the channel where the kids were fishing, my smell guide, George, says the odor seems organic, that may be the mix of corn ferment and soap factory emissions.
As we continue our tour east toward the massive BP refinery in Whiting, you pick up oily scents from fumes being released from several flares.
It’s like passing a parade of diesel burning semi-trucks with your window down. It’s all part of the process, says Smolka, of turning crude oil into petroleum-based products such as gasoline, machine oil and lubricants.
PUENTE: What are we smelling?
SMOLKA: You’re smelling sulfur, sulfur compounds of one sort or another. If there’s any hydrogen sulfide in the materials that they’re venting, when that burns, it generally forms sulfur dioxide. And sulfur dioxide is a very well known lung irritant and nasal passage irritant. It’s not very pleasant.
But what you smell might have less to do with what’s coming off a particular flare or smokestack than how they mix, says Tom Anderson of the Save The Dunes Council in Michigan City, Indiana.
ANDERSON: Northwest Indiana, we have base industries that involve everything from the chemical industry to refining petroleum to the steel mills to coke ovens. So we certainly have our sources of enormous, I guess, mixes, combinations of certain chemicals.
Some odors stand out, says Anderson.
ANDERSON: Those of use who have been to Whiting know that there are times you smell gasoline in the air. Now, obviously it’s the largest inland refinery in the United States, and so there’s no surprise that there are odors associated with that.
But, he says, what may be a surprise is that while harmful levels of ozone and other harmful emissions have been dramatically reduced over the last decade, thanks to the Clean Air Act, odors have not.
ANDERSON: There is no rule, state or federal rule, which addresses odor.
That seemed pretty clear as George Smolka and I continued our tour near the U.S. Steel Plant in Gary, where foul odors are easily detectable.
It’s here where some 8 million-tons of steel are produced every year. And that process can and does wreak havoc on the air and water.
Sometimes white billowing plums of steam are released from U.S. Steel smokestacks. They look harmless, says Smolka.
SMOLKA: Many of the clouds of course that come out of those smokestacks are hardly white. They contain particulates as well as gases of various sorts. Frequently, it’s nothing more than what was in the fuel they were using. And sometimes what’s of course included are either materials that are created by the process or are secondary byproducts of the process. You’re creating one thing it reacts with something else, and eventually ends up in the air.
The weather and the winds, says Smolka, play a major role in what odors you pick up on any given day.
SMOLKA: If we have a bad inversion in the summer time, a lot of that stuff stays here. And believe me, if you’ve been here, you know what that is like.
If you continue east around the lakefront, you’ll see more companies, more industry and more steel mills all the way to the state line with Michigan.
Odors around the region shouldn’t come as surprise to anybody, says Dan Murray of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. But he says, that doesn’t mean the air isn’t healthy to breathe overall.
MURRAY: It’s an urban area. An urban, industrial area and there’s odors there that are particular to that area but does that mean poor air quality, no it doesn’t mean that. And, if you were to compare the air quality of in NWI to other urban areas throughout the country, you’ll find you’ll have something very similar.
Murray says in addition to there not being any federal or state regulations to minimize odors, he says it would be a challenge to do even if there were.
And, despite years of improvement in air quality, the U.S. EPA still lists Lake and Porter counties as areas that haven’t met federal air quality standards. That’s because of high levels of certain pollutants and ozone.
But sometimes smelly odors do mean unhealthy air, says Bessie Dent of the Calumet Project, a not-for-profit grassroots agency that specializes in economic and environmental education.
Two years ago, the Hammond-based agency kicked off what it calls the bucket brigade to monitor air quality in neighborhoods in Whiting and East Chicago that sit close to the large BP refinery. The Bucket Brigade involves, you guessed it, a bucket.
DENT: You can tell the bucket. I bought it from Menards.
The bucket includes a kit of EPA approved plastic bags and a small hand-held vacuum cleaner that sucks air into a bucket.
The bag is sent to an independent lab to be analyzed. Dent says in one sample taken last summer…
DENT: It was 14 chemicals in the air. And they were all dangerous chemicals for us health wise.
Among them, says Dent, were acrolein, carbon disulfide and styrene. The levels of each exceeded the EPA’s levels set for health concerns.
The chemicals found are listed as probable cancer causing chemicals, by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, while styrene and carbon disulfide directly affect the brain, heart and liver.
The agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, also states that when it comes to being exposed to multiple chemicals, there are no standards set for small children, elderly persons, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.
Back at the fishing hole, Sherry Jackim wonders if enough if being done to clean the air in Northwest Indiana.
JACKIM: I worry about our health sometimes.
But not everyone is worried. Jackim’s father, Jeff, has lived near the Amaizo channel for years.
These everyday odors tell him something different.
JEFF JACKIM: That’s fermenting corn, man. That’s the smell of money.