The Worst Perceptions Confirmed

Do people judge your facility with their noses? If so, then every day, the air wafting over your facility could be undermining your efforts at education.

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I live in a beautiful Wisconsin city on Lake Michigan. A few summers ago I attended an annual lakefront/riverfront art festival with artisan booths, performance tents, food stands and kids’ rides and games.

It was a gorgeous day in July, the lake water so blue you might have sworn the Chamber of Commerce dumped in a barrel of dye just to make it look perfect for the occasion. But what I noticed most of all was the smell. The breeze coming from the south carried an odor from the wastewater treatment plant up and across the river. I cut my visit to the festival short because of it.

Now, given my background in the clean-water business and the job I now do, I am probably less sensitive to and less offended by smells from treatment plants than most people. I have never worked in a treatment plant, but I have toured a goodly number, and I know what to expect.

One thing I don’t expect is for a treatment plant to smell like cherry blossom time in Door County. And yet on that festival day, the odor repelled me. I wondered: What impression is this leaving on city residents and people visiting from other towns? Do they know where the odor is coming from? Is the treatment plant staff aware of it?


Making a statement?

I wasn’t about to criticize the treatment plant team or the city, because for all I knew they were doing everything they could, and that day’s problem was a rarity. Odor problems can be tricky (as Robert Bowker, this issue’s “In My Words” interviewee, will attest), and solving them takes money treatment agencies may or may not have on hand.

The fact remains that an odor, whether it’s there all the time or only rarely when the wind is wrong, hurts public perceptions of a treatment plant and of the industry. We want the public to focus on what comes out of the plant. Odor speaks to them about what goes in. So the perception remains of a nasty place run by miserable people in dirty jeans.

I don’t read much in the paper or on the Internet, or hear much on radio, or see much on TV, about treatment plant odors, and that’s a sign the plants in general are doing a good job of odor control, or that what odors there are don’t bother people very much.

If people aren’t complaining, or if complaints are few and far between, then presumably there’s no problem. Many treatment plants are built in somewhat remote areas, not really near the city proper, and so odors have ample time to dissipate before they reach sensitive noses.


Have a look around

But even if complaints aren’t rampant, even if odors exist that most people just accept as part of life, are they insidiously doing harm? Are they consistently, day by day, reinforcing negative impressions people hold about plants and operators?

That’s hard to say, and far be it from me to tell treatment plant teams where to place their priorities and where to spend budgets that are always limited. Yet I’ve seen examples since I began editing this magazine of plants that have mitigated odor issues with surprisingly simple modifications at extremely low cost.

So while I don’t suggest bringing in an odor expert where a plant and its community are co-existing just fine, I do consider it perhaps worthwhile to keep odor issues on the radar — at least to the point of knowing what the largest sources are.

If a quick, simple, inexpensive remedy can mitigate an issue that’s silently undermining the impression you want to convey to your publics, maybe it’s worth taking action now instead of later.


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