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St. Petersburg report addresses Childs Park odor, suggests more investigation

A top issue for the majority-Black neighborhood is part of a report set to be presented to City Council members on Thursday.
An aerial view of part of the Childs Park industrial corridor, including the Howco Environmental Services oil recycling plant, and adjacent homes. A longstanding odor problem tied to the industrial area has raised worries about air quality and health effects, and the corridor in general has been a point of concern documented by the city for decades. Neighbors' recent work to tackle the smells and raise awareness are reflected in a new city report.
An aerial view of part of the Childs Park industrial corridor, including the Howco Environmental Services oil recycling plant, and adjacent homes. A longstanding odor problem tied to the industrial area has raised worries about air quality and health effects, and the corridor in general has been a point of concern documented by the city for decades. Neighbors' recent work to tackle the smells and raise awareness are reflected in a new city report. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 27

ST. PETERSBURG — A new report is meant to update Childs Park residents and elected leaders on three years of city efforts to address environmental concerns in the predominantly Black community.

It focuses on what has become an obvious concern in the neighborhood: A concentration of industry unique in St. Petersburg to Childs Park, much of it located next to homes, with “minimal resources” spent to monitor air quality. Documented city concerns about the industrial area date back more than 25 years, and residents say foul odors emitted from the corridor have been a problem for even longer.

City Council members are slated to receive the report, spanning 167 pages with supporting materials and including the word “odor” more than 200 times, when they meet on Thursday. Its release follows a campaign this year, led by Childs Park residents and aided by the city and researchers, involving the installation of air monitors and aggressive reporting of unpleasant smells in real time as they waft over the neighborhood.

Mayor Ken Welch also is set to meet later this week with concerned Childs Park residents.

“Hearing about this from residents and reading about it, I’m really glad that this is getting so much attention now,” said Gina Driscoll, who is chair of both the City Council and its Health, Energy, Resilience and Sustainability committee, which will receive the report. “You can see where we’re finally getting the response that was needed all along from the different entities. I think we can actually get to where we solve the problem.”

Related: South St. Pete neighbors confront decades-old mystery: What’s that smell?

A preliminary review of existing information “does not conclusively demonstrate that the existing industries are emitting pollutants at levels that are harmful to health,” according to the report. But more air quality analysis and odor investigation is needed, the city found. Since June, three monitors to measure airborne particulate matter have been installed in the neighborhood, in a collaboration between the city, neighborhood association and researchers.

But the report also found that the city should work with businesses and residents to mitigate odors and create buffers between industrial sites and the homes that sit, in many places, just across the street.

A citywide review found that facilities with air operation and wastewater discharge permits are “somewhat evenly distributed” throughout the city, but are more concentrated in Childs Park and the neighborhoods directly east of it. And while the number of violations at facilities elsewhere in the city was similar to those in Childs Park, the report found, “most are not likely directly adjacent to residents,” as they are in Childs Park.

The city documented neighbors’ concerns about those facilities — which currently include an oil recycling operation, a concrete manufacturer and a petroleum transfer station — as early as the mid-1990s. An overview of the neighborhood produced in or around 1995 raised concerns about the lack of buffering between homes and industries. And a 2007 strategic plan, previously noted in a memo to Welch earlier this year, deemed the industrial corridor a “health and safety hazard.” Neither references odors, according to the report.

Related: St. Petersburg knew about ‘health and safety hazard’ in Childs Park since 2007

The city has little power when it comes to environmental regulation. Issues like odor and industrial emissions are delegated by the state to region- or county-wide agencies — here, the Pinellas County Air Quality Division.

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Most of the agency’s investigations stem from complaints, not proactive measuring, and inspectors do not often respond right away. Air quality officials have said complaints are usually addressed within three days; the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year found one incident in which it took the agency 13 days to dispatch an investigator.

Even filing a complaint is a difficult task, the city report found. Many residents told city officials that they didn’t know how to do anything about the smells, and others “did not think authorities would listen to them or do anything about the odors,” because of bad experiences dealing with government entities.

Those who did want to complain often were confused about whether to go to the city, county, or state or federal agencies. The county’s complaint system, the report found, seemed set up for “the technically savvy and ... technical subject matter experts.”

A simplified questionnaire, created by the city and distributed through the neighborhood association’s “Smell Something, Say Something” campaign, has made it easier to report odors.

Over the past decade, the report found, the county registered a small handful of complaints in the Childs Park area. Since the new form launched in April, it has recorded 45 of them.

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