South Park tells agency it's sick of smelly scents

South Park residents crowded into Highland Park Elementary School's auditorium last night for a public forum on the "South Park Odor," a stench that has permeated Southwest Seattle neighborhoods for months.

It was the first time many of the residents had met with officials from the state Department of Health and Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, or PSCAA, and the reception was largely hostile.

"Your sniff test sucks," Yalonda Sinde told the agency's director of compliance, referring to the way investigators track toxic fumes to their source.

"I place the blame on PSCAA," said Jon Gould, who has caught whiffs of the stench on Beacon Hill. "This has been going on for more than a year now."

The clean-air agency has received more than 100 complaints this year of what is often described as a chlorine scent.

Most complaints come from South Park, but the stench has been noticed in Fauntleroy, Burien and Beacon Hill. Of the more than 150 people in the school's auditorium last night, many complained it scorched their throats and made them struggle to breathe.

Tamara Dyer, who also lives on Beacon Hill, described the stench as "metallic, like sulfuric acid." Whenever she smells it, she races outside to fetch her son. "I think it's horrible," she said. "I don't want him outside in that."

In a calm, measured tone, the agency's James Nolan explained how his agents' hunt for a chlorine or ammonia source has led to "a dead end" thus far.

"Since we've been so ineffective in finding the cause of this odor," he said apologetically, "we've asked some people with expertise at the University of Washington to help us out."

Air samples have been sent to the UW's Department of Environmental Health for analysis, he said.

In an interview before the meeting, Nolan said results of those tests should be ready early next week.

"There are a bunch of things in the urban air," he said. "We'll try to pick out one thing, something that spikes, that makes us say, 'Ah-hah. That's it.' "

The clean-air agency hasn't ruled out anything. It's possible that a low tide on the Duwamish Waterway, a Superfund site designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, could expose sediments that emit odors.

Some residents have a hunch that the smell could be coming from an illegal methamphetamine lab. Nolan said such operations do use ammonia and chlorine, but not on such a large scale that the odors would envelop a neighborhood.

"We've looked at that, and there's no way one place could spread its fumes to both West Seattle and South Park," he said.

Asked to give his best guess about the mysterious smell, Nolan said he thinks sulfur and nitrogen oxides are the likely culprits. Both are produced in the manufacture of cement. Sulfur in the clay and nitrogen in the air, in extreme heat, can be turned into sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

Nolan told the audience that the Lafarge Corp.'s cement plant on West Marginal Way Southwest is the most likely source.

"There are many, many different industries in the Duwamish River Valley," he said. "But people tell us when the wind is blowing from the cement plant, that's when they smell the odor."

Lafarge officials insist that if the smell has been around for a year and a half, it can't be the plant because it hasn't changed how it makes cement since 1966.

Faced with a crowd tired of breathing the scent, Nolan asked for their patience.

"Please don't get frustrated," he said. "We're hoping that with the help of the community, we can get this thing straightened out."

Matthew Craft: 206-464-2194 or