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'Southside Stench': Neighbors hope EPA settlement with oil-recycling plant clears the air

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Posted at 12:04 PM, Aug 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-24 18:48:19-04

INDIANAPOLIS — There are days when the air smells so bad you can't stay outside for long, folks who live and work in this near-southside neighborhood say.

Neighbors, who have been complaining about the "Southside Stench" for decades, have reason to be hopeful now that the company believed to be the source of the smells has reached a settlement and agreed to install new equipment designed to capture foul odors along with other hazardous pollutants.

"(It is) a very burning, chemical smell," said Hallie Robbins, an area resident who works at the nearby Concord Neighborhood Center, 1310 S Meridian St. "It definitely seems the most like a substance is on fire. There have been times when it has been so bad we've had to bring the kids in from outside."

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Metalworking Lubricants cleans and recycles dirty oil products at this facility at 1509 S. Senate Ave.

Metalworking Lubricants Co., an oil recycling plant at 1509 S. Senate Ave. that many believe is the source of the stench, agreed to pay $310,000 to settle a Clean-Air-Act violation complaint that dates back about 10 years, the U.S. Environmental Protecting Agency announced on Aug. 5.

The EPA alleged that Metalworking Lubricants had violated its permit by emitting more than 25 tons of hazardous air pollutants per year. The hazardous pollutants included naphthalene, ethylbenzene, xylene, phenol and toluene.

Those chemicals are commonly found in oil and petroleum products, said Bill Baranek, chairman of the Marion County Local Emergency Planning Committee.

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Bill Beranek

Mimics natural gas

"Over the years, there have been many instances in which odors came from the company and went into the neighborhood," Beranek said. "Our concern about some of these odors is that they mimic the odor that the gas company puts in its natural gas, so therefore, when that odor comes out... when it goes out over the community, people think there's natural gas that's been released."

Firefighters and repair crews waste their time responding to these reports, Beranek said. The bigger danger is that some neighbors are so used to the smell they've stopped calling 911.

"Well, when they don't report it, that's also bad because it could be natural gas and there could be an explosion," Beranek said.

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The Concord Neighborhood Center, 1310 S. Meridian St.

Niki Girls, director of the Concord Neighborhood Center located a few blocks away from Metalworking Lubricants, said while residents may have grown accustomed to the smell, they don't like it.

"It's not a good situation to have in your family, in your home," Girls said. "As a parent, I can imagine you would have some concerns about the extent to which that could be causing problems for your children."

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Children play outside of the Concord Neighborhood Center, 1310 S. Meridian St.

The Concord Center provides social services and programs for children, adults and seniors in the area. Its playground provides space for dozens of children to play basketball, corn hole and four square.

The Concord Center, which traces its roots to Indiana's first neighborhood center built in 1875, sits about a half-mile northeast of the plant and is often downwind of the odors.

No response from the company

Officials at the Pontiac, Mich., -based Metalworking Lubricants Co. have not responded to phone calls and emailed requests for comment. The plant manager at the Indianapolis facility met WRTV at the front gate on a recent visit and said any comment would have to come from the Michigan headquarters.

The Indianapolis plant is surrounded by a tall fence topped with barbed wire. Inside that fence are a dozen or so huge, white storage tanks, a warehouse and several buildings.

The company employs oil technicians, lab technicians, tanker drivers and factory laborers, according to its website. Metalworking Lubricants has held an Indiana business license since 1977 and has operated in Michigan since 1952, Indiana records show.

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A Metalworking Lubricants employee wearing white protective clothing transfers dirty oil from a train car to a truck before it gets moved into the company's storage tanks. The Pontiac, Mich.,-based company's Indianapolis plant cleans and recycles used oil.

On a recent afternoon, WRTV saw an employee clad in a white protective garment using hoses to move oil between a tanker-train car and a white tanker-truck. There was a strong cleaning fluid-like smell in the air that seemed to come from that oil. This smell did not linger when WRTV left the immediate vicinity of the plant.

EPA doesn't regulate smells

Metalworking Lubricants, according to the EPA's complaint, failed to operate its scrubber when it processed oil in its tanks; failed to respond when the scrubber malfunctioned; failed to keep required records; underestimated the amount of pollutants in the oil it processed; and failed to apply for a major source permit that would include stricter EPA guidelines and monitoring.

In the settlement, Metalworking Lubricants agreed to install a carbon adsorption system that will remove the pollution along with compounds that produce foul smells.

Beranek agreed the new carbon system, which works kind of like the filters in some water pitchers, could make a difference and reduce or eliminate some of the smells from the oil being processed in the company's tanks.

The problem, Beranek said, is the EPA doesn't regulate smells.

"If it does work and they're able to maintain it, I hope that it addresses some or part of the odor problem," Beranek said. "But we don't know where the odor is coming from, so I'm not going to be surprised if it doesn't."

Beranek said nothing in the settlement changes how odors and other pollutants may be escaping while the oil is being transferred outside the plant's front gate.

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A worker in protective clothing transfers oil between a train car and a tanker truck just outside Metalworking Lubricants Co.,1509 S. Senate Ave. Lucas Oil Stadium sits just north of the plant.

Regulators must keep close tabs on the company and make sure it lives up to the deal, Beranek said. He wants more regulators and more attention on the facility and its pollutants.

"Can we look at the whole thing? Can we involve the local health department more? Can we involve more people?" Beranek asked. "And can we do it in a cooperative way?"

A positive sign, he said, is company officials have shown more willingness to work with community members in recent months. Another bright note, Beranek said there hasn't been a major odor issue in about a year.

People here deserve better

Girls and Robbins said they recalled smelling the odor in the neighborhood sometime within the last few months. They were surprised by the smell that time because it had been a while since the stench had wafted across the neighborhood.

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Children play outside of the Concord Neighborhood Center, 1310 S. Meridian St.

Girls said people here are frustrated that it has taken decades for state and U.S. regulators to finally win a settlement.

People who live in this neighborhood deserve better, Girls said.

"You want your neighborhood to be a place that's attractive," Girls said. "It (the smell) has more of a detriment not to just their physical health but emotionally because it's kind of a reminder of the lack of regard for their living environment."

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Niki Girls

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.