This Might Be the Single Most Important Step a Plant Can Take to Sustain Good Community Relations

First impressions are everything. What if the main impression your plant creates in your community is an annoying or offensive odor?

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Why are there multibillion-dollar industries in products like underarm deodorants, mouthwashes and bathroom air fresheners?

In his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, why did J.R.R. Tolkien give the evil land of Mordor an overpowering stench?

The answers to these questions are obvious. So then, why do some communities and utilities allow their clean-water plants to send out odors that annoy or offend their neighbors? One could argue that a bad smell is a worse assault on the senses than ugly appearance or a bothersome noise.

These days there are many ways — biological, chemical, mechanical and combinations — to make odors essentially disappear outside the facility fence line and to a large extent within the facility boundaries. So why aren’t these technologies deployed more universally?

A rising profile

I know, one major reason is cost, or more to the point, cost versus benefit. But a case can be made that controlling odor is the most important thing a facility can do for community relations, and for the advancement of the clean-water professions.

If you doubt the importance of odor control, consider that two months ago the Water Environment Federation (in cooperation with the Ohio Water Environment Association) held a three-day conference devoted solely to odors and air pollutants.

It covered the full range of odor-related topics: regulations in the United States and around the world, odor-control technologies of many kinds in treatment plans and collection systems, odor modeling, profiling of odors, odor system optimization and, yes, “the cost of being a good neighbor.”

Maybe that last one is the most important of all. An odor emanating from a clean-water plant is more than just an annoyance to certain residents “when the wind is right.” It makes a powerful and not at all favorable statement about the industry and the water professions.

Message in the air

Let’s face it: Many people already have negative perceptions about clean-water plants — perhaps the largest being that they smell. And what does that say about the people who work there? Surely not that they are highly trained and educated professionals who perform an absolutely essential community and environmental service. No, they’re people who work in an unpleasant place and do dirty jobs.

The plant? Odors don’t signify that it’s a finely tuned, technologically advanced facility that produces recycled water, renewable energy and rich nutrients that can enhance farm soils, community gardens and parks, and residential landscapes. No, odors say it’s just a place that handles sewage.

The industry and the people in it can’t afford to contribute to those wrong perceptions. The folks on the receiving end of odors are the very people who will one day be relied upon to approve funding for large projects that upgrade collection systems, expand treatment capacity, and improve treatment technologies to meet ever-stricter effluent permit limits.

Would they rather support what they see as a bad-smelling place staffed by people in dirty jeans? Or a clean, effective facility that is indispensable to public health and the protection of water resources?

Where to turn

So it seems the benefit of eliminating odors goes beyond heading off complaints and being a good neighbor. It helps create the kind of perception, the kind of prestige, that a clean-water plant and its operators deserve in their community.

So there’s little question that odor control is worth the investment. Sometimes the needed control systems are simple and inexpensive. Other times they’re more complex and require larger investments. Either way, the importance of odor control is not something to ignore.

Today there are many resources to help plants sweeten the air over their communities. Consultants, equipment suppliers and resources in WEF and state and regional associations are all there to help out. If your plant has an odor issue, isn’t it time to look at ways to solve it?   


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