ST. PETERSBURG — An odor has hung over Childs Park for decades.
Neighbors say it smells like a gas leak or fresh blacktop. It comes and goes like the weather, makes their eyes burn, heads hurt, stomachs roil. No one is sure where it comes from or how harmful it is.
Kayla Benning, a mother of three, says she smells it as soon as she wakes up.
St. Petersburg City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman says the stench drove her out of the neighborhood.
Pinellas County School Board member Caprice Edmond spoke up after she heard recess had to be cut short at Fairmount Park Elementary.
She called Brother John Muhammad, a lifelong Childs Park resident who can’t remember life in this predominantly Black, low-income community without random yet pungent breezes. Until that moment, they realized, no one had done anything about it. So they decided to force the issue.
“This is not normal, it shouldn’t be normal,” Muhammad, 46, said. “How many generations have been impacted by that? The school’s right across the street. YMCA’s there, library’s there, the football field’s there, the park is here.
“At some point, we’ve got to do something.”
No one disputes that the odors exist or that they affect the quality of life in the community, where some residents say they are forced indoors when the smells are at their worst.
Identifying the culprit has not been so simple. The businesses in the area say they aren’t to blame. And government regulators haven’t pinpointed the source, sometimes responding to neighborhood complaints after the odor has dissipated. In the absence of definitive proof, community members are left to do the sleuthing.
The problem speaks to a fundamental issue: the right to breathe clean air.
“All these years they’ve done nothing,” said resident Beverly Chappell. “Is it political? Or is it just in the Black neighborhood? Because I’m certain that if it was in a white neighborhood they’d have done something about it.”
The Childs Park industrial corridor is nestled inside the neighborhood, easy to miss for those passing by but unavoidable for those who live around it.
It backs up to the Pinellas Trail, once a rail line that serviced the area. Today, it’s home to a maker of precast concrete, a seafood distributor, a non-operational fuel terminal and an oil recycling plant. Front doors open to a view of faded fences and weathered tanks. A two-lane road separates residents from their industrial neighbors.
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It’s somewhere in this corridor that many residents believe the odor originates.
Pinpointing a source of a bad smell can be a challenge, said Sheila Schneider, head of the Pinellas County Air Quality Division.
A bad smell isn’t necessarily toxic, air pollution experts caution. But researchers have found that those who live with them can suffer physiological and psychological effects, and some consider odor to be its own sort of pollutant.
Florida is one of a few states that regulates “objectionable odors.” What’s objectionable, however, is “a difficult thing to put a finger on,” Schneider said. “We do our very best.”
To determine how strong an odor is, inspectors have only one tool: the nose. Schneider said the division responds to odor complaints within three days, during which it visits facilities and reviews reports. But, she said, it’s not obligated to check them out immediately: “We’re not expected to drop what we’re doing.”
Schneider told the Tampa Bay Times in March that businesses in the corridor were in compliance with state and federal regulations. The Times contacted those businesses, and none said their operations produce a smell.
McMullen Oil, a local fuel supplier, has owned land in the corridor since 2012. Its owner, Paul McMullen, said the business doesn’t process oil on site, but noted that the land remains under state oversight for a cleanup of decades-old petroleum contamination.
Next door is another piece of oil-tainted land, also part of the state’s cleanup program. For more than 40 years, it’s been home to Howco Environmental Services, an oil recycling operation with tall black tanks that rise above Childs Park.
Howco’s process could produce smells, complaint inspection reports show. Howco “cooks” waste oil to separate water, and the water treatment process releases volatile organic compounds. A broad category of smelly gasses that can range from air fresheners to industrial emissions, those compounds can cause a range of health effects, from eye and nose irritation to cancer. Howco uses systems called air strippers to limit the release of compounds into the air.
Howco’s St. Petersburg facility is what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls a synthetic minor emissions source — it could emit more than it does but chooses not to, in order to jump through fewer hoops. Last year, the U.S. Office of the Inspector General told the agency to improve oversight of such facilities after it found that insufficient monitoring could enable emissions above allowable limits.
Howco officials did not agree to an interview with the Times. In a series of emails, operations director Lee A. Morris wrote that the company “is aware of the reported odors in our neighborhood,” but that Howco is not the source. He noted that the company has been recycling used motor oil in Childs Park for more than 40 years. Morris added that the company is actively working with the county to determine possible sources of the odors, listing the other industries in the area.
In February 2021, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection records, employees at Fairmount Park Elementary complained of a gas smell in the hallways during dismissal. The county dispatched an inspector to investigate Howco — 13 days after the complaints. By then, the odor was gone.
That came on the heels of another incident, in January 2021, when someone nearly a mile north of the industrial corridor called St. Petersburg Fire Rescue about what neighbors thought might be a gas leak. The caller compared the odor to jet fuel, according to a report. The fire department followed the scent to Howco and shut down the plant for the day.
County inspectors found that reclaimed fuel had been heated beyond “maximum safe temperature levels,” which led to the release of a strong smell that violated the odor ordinance. In his emails to the Times, Morris blamed the problem on a gasket that didn’t seal properly, “which is not typical,” and said the smell dissipated when it was fixed.
But at the time, a plant manager told the county inspector something else, according to the report: “He stated it was just the typical odors.”
‘It’s not fair to us’
Chappell, 82, lives in the home her mother bought for $5,000 in 1970. Though it’s a half mile from the industrial corridor, she consistently smells something like a gas leak.
When she and her daughter called the county to complain last year, the smell dissipated by the time the inspector arrived four to five hours later. He told the women they needed to call right away. They responded that they had, and that he’d taken hours to arrive.
“It’s not fair to us,” said her daughter Deidre Williams, 54, sitting on the patio she and her mother now rarely use because of the smell. “We want to be safe. We want to be able to breathe decent air.”
Wheeler-Bowman, whose City Council district includes Childs Park, recalled that when she briefly lived down the street from the industrial corridor about five years ago, she mentioned the issue to a city administrator, but nothing came of it. Concerned for her family’s health, she left.
A block from the industrial corridor, Benning raises three children. She doesn’t let them play in her yard.
“There’s days where it’s so strong, I get a headache,” said Benning, 27.
Her neighbor, LaToya Reedy, has been trying to establish a family home of her own. When she moved into her Habitat for Humanity house in 2019, she envisioned her son would raise his kids there, and those kids would raise their own kids.
Soon Reedy said she began noticing black smudges in her cabinets and refrigerator, on her clothes and walls and ceiling. She first thought it was soot, but it was oily to the touch.
“If you would’ve seen my home,” she said, “you would’ve thought I’d been there 50 years.”
Habitat for Humanity brought in an inspector, who ruled out any sort of fungus. He couldn’t come to a definitive conclusion as to the source but wrote, “the stains may be aerosolized oil droplets from the facility near the home.”
Once proud of her home, Reedy, 41, now feels depressed and stuck, unable to afford another place. Reluctant to buy furniture or make improvements, and plagued by smell and sinus irritation, she wonders whether she’s putting herself at risk for chronic ailments by staying.
“That’s my fear, because I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know.”
Smell something, say something
To local scientists, the Childs Park problem poses crucial questions — What’s in the air? Is it hurting people? — and an opportunity to put power in the hands of residents.
Researchers from the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg College and Eckerd College are working on various projects around the neighborhood: outfitting residents with personal air monitors, trying to place other measuring equipment in the neighborhood and canvassing the community about health concerns. It will take months, if not longer, to collect significant data.
Some of the projects already have grant funding. They’re designed for neighbors to take an active role in collecting data and working with the researchers to sort through the results’ implications.
Research doesn’t have to be exclusively done by a university, said community psychologist Susie Paterson. “We have expertise in research tools, but they have expertise about their communities.”
Regulatory agencies have huge jobs and not enough money, said Amy Stuart, an air quality expert at the University of South Florida. Citizen-science projects like these can force agencies to take notice.
“They do more when people complain a lot,” she said. “And when there’s political pressure to do more.”
To the same end, the Childs Park Neighborhood Association launched the “Smell Something, Say Something” campaign this month to encourage residents to document and report odors. The group is distributing fliers with scannable codes to make filing complaints with the county easier.
“Smelling foul odors in our community is NOT OK,” reads the flier, which Muhammad, the neighborhood association president, produced in collaboration with the city. “We have a right to clean air and a healthy environment.”
Both the social and scientific projects are under the banner of an NAACP environmental justice committee formed last year.
Suncoast Sierra Club board member James Scott visited the corridor years ago. The smell burned his sinuses, he said. Over the past two years, with the NAACP looking to take on more environmental justice projects and the Sierra Club giving more attention to racial disparities and discrimination, Childs Park emerged as an obvious place to collaborate.
“I see no more glaring issue in our town that is at the intersection of environmental justice than this,” Scott said.
Brian Peret leads the NAACP environmental justice committee. He said Childs Park reminds him of growing up outside Milwaukee, when an accident at a nearby facility prompted the evacuation of the surrounding neighborhood — except nobody notified the residents of the housing project where Peret lived.
“The thing that was similar” in comparing the neighborhoods, he said, “was that we needed a place as America to put poor people.”
‘I did smell it’
On a recent Friday, Schneider smelled it.
She had joined Muhammad, and a group of residents and officials, for a walk around the industrial area. The scent was familiar: the distinctive additive that gives an odor to naturally odorless propane and natural gas.
“I don’t know where it was coming from,” she said later. “I don’t know which source it was, I really can’t say, but I did smell it.”
Schneider said her agency will “try to have a nose in the area a little more frequently.” After hearing about odor-related disruptions at Fairmount Park, she said she’d like the school to keep track of the smells so her agency can trace the source.
She has some ideas to look into and some phone calls to make. She has a hunch, but wouldn’t say what it is.
“I can’t imagine that there isn’t some underlying issue that’s causing this that nobody’s even thought about before,” she said.
In an email after the interview, Schneider added one more thing: She’d contacted TECO Peoples Gas, which would be doing its own inspection in the neighborhood.
TECO spokesperson Sylvia Vega said there weren’t any gas leaks in the area, but that “we have an industrial customer near that area.
“When that customer is active, a natural gas-type odor emits from its exhaust stacks,” she said. “We, the local fire department and the customer are aware of the odor.”
A spokesperson for St. Petersburg Fire Rescue, though, said he didn’t know anything about it.
And who was this customer?
Vega said she didn’t know.