EVERETT — Several times a year, Dick Abrams, an environmental manager for Kimberly-Clark, goes sniffing around Everett.
Abrams' olfactory explorations are to see if he can track down the source of an occasional complaint from residents who blame the paper mill for unpleasant odors.
"It's funny, we always get blamed for things," Abrams said. "Lots of times, if people smell something, they think it's the mill."
The issue of odors in Everett can be a sensitive one, harking back to the days when the community was known as a mill town because of its heavy concentration of plants. Some Everett officials will only reluctantly talk about it, saying they believe the city no longer has odor issues.
It's an image the city has worked hard to put behind it.
"It's a myth, and it's time that that myth died," said Lanie McMullin, the city's executive director overseeing economic development, parks, human services and arts and culture.
"We have the smells of a city doing business. We have water and industry, and someone is making soup somewhere, and there is a sewer going someplace. But we're not any different than any other city."
Clearly, Everett is a city whose stock is rising. Boeing recently decided it will base its coveted 7E7 project there; the Everett Events Center has breathed new life into downtown; outdoor art has sprung up around Colby Avenue. Last year's welcome for the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln from a 9½-month deployment showed the city knows how to throw a party in grand style.
But to some, Everett is still a city that, well, sometimes smells.
Some aromas found around downtown are considered pleasant: the toasted smell of coffee beans roasting at Bargreen Coffee, the sweetbread smell of beer being made at Flying Pig Brewing. And there's the smell of briny water and seaweed from Port Gardner Bay.
Then there are the not-so-pleasant smells that sometimes draw complaints: the pungent odor wafting from the city's sewage lagoons, which are used to process the city's wastewater, or the musty smells drifting from Kim-
berly-Clark's wastewater-treatment plants.
The odors aren't evident every day. But when they are, some residents don't just hold their nose. They reach for the phone.
Elle Ray, whose home is near Kimberly-Clark, knows all too well which way the wind is blowing.
"I just got a whiff of it a couple days ago," Ray said. "I sometimes call them (Kimberly-Clark) up to complain; I'm sure I have my own file with them. To me, it's a matter of I don't want to be assaulted with sewage smells. I have a wonderful garden with lot of flowers, and I like the smell of fresh earth, not rotting sewage."
But the odor isn't continuous, and it doesn't permeate areas outside her neighborhood, she said.
The procedure that Kimberly-Clark uses in its pulping process creates few odors, Abrams said. However, what people may smell is the waste-treatment center the mill uses to process the fluids left over from its pulping process, he said.
Over the years, the mill has made considerable efforts to minimize the odors emanating from the plant, Abrams said.
The first paper mill opened in Everett area during the 1890s, and several other pulp and paper mills began to sprout up along its waterfront during the 1900s to 1950s, said David Dilgard, a historian with the Everett Public Library's Northwest Room. These mills, which had a tendency to produce particularly offensive "rotten egg" smells, began to decline in the 1960s, and most began to shut during the 1970s.
"If you haven't gotten off the freeway lately, you don't see all the changes that have happened in Everett," McMullin said. "Smell is still a sensitive issue here. That (image) is one of the worst things we've had to deal with."
Other cities, such as Tacoma — home of the "Aroma of Tacoma" — have also had to work hard to squelch old perceptions based on a mill-town legacy.
"The city had to make a concerted effort to change the impression of the city, not just in terms of smell, but everything," said Scott Huntley, a spokesman for the city of Tacoma. "We had polluted waterways, a seedy downtown, contaminated dirt at the Asarco smelter. Tacoma had to have a major marketing campaign and do a lot of revitalization of the city."
Although many residents agree that Everett long ago moved from mill town to a growing urban center, the olfactory matter continues to concern some neighborhood groups. For residents living downwind of the city's sewage lagoons east of Interstate 5, summer can be the season of appalling odors.
"During the summer months, when the air gets stagnant, it seems to me that those gases seem to linger toward the ground. It's not constant, but sometimes you get a whiff of it," said Tim Dean, whose home is near the lagoons.
"I've had it so bad that I've been sleeping on a summer evening and it's woken me up, and I had to get up and close the windows."
Still, it's a small nuisance in living in a city that Dean said he is proud to call home.
"This city is changing. As I see it, the city is in a strong growth position," Dean said. "I, personally, think the downtown looks great. There are more businesses that want to come in."
The issue of smell has spurred the city to take some creative steps in controlling the stink coming from the nearly 200 acres of lagoons, which are part of the city's wastewater-treatment plant.
The city installed 50-foot-tall orchard fans that kick on automatically when the wind coming across the lagoons drops below a certain velocity, said Robert Waddle, Everett Public Works' operations superintendent. The fans, which blow to the east, work by pushing more air over the lagoons and effectively diluting the smell, Waddle said.
"The data we use to track this issue is not scientific. It's based on people's noses and emotions and relying on them to call us," Waddle said. "But it indicates that we have had a dramatic improvement. There has been a 50 percent drop in odor complaints."
In 2002, Public Works received 114 complaints about odor from the lagoons. Last year, the number dropped to 44. The department has received three complaints so far this year, Waddle said.
"The city has some odors, but it's really not a huge problem," Everett City Councilman Mark Olsen said. "There are a range of smells here. Sometimes it's hard to tell what is coming from farmland or the sewage lagoons, or the smell of tar being used in construction.
"But that's the smell of progress. The smell of things being built."
Rachel Tuinstra: 425-783-0674 or firstname.lastname@example.org