In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Stench of Saint Paul
By William Wilcoxen
July 11, 2000
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

The president of Minnesota Brewing says the newly installed equipment has reduced the odor from ethanol production at the Saint Paul plant. In addition, further steps have been taken that may eliminate the odor complaints that have plagued the West Seventh neighborhood for the last two months. Residents attending a community meeting on July 10th insisted the stench remains a problem. Some say the smell is causing health problems and they hope to stop ethanol production at the plant.
Landmark Brewery Building
The big brick brewery has loomed over West Seventh Street since 1855, but residents say there was a big change in the neighborhood this spring when the plant began ethanol production. See larger image. (MPR Photo/Eric Ryan)

THE FORT ROAD FEDERATION'S question and answer session with Jack Lee, the President and Chief Executive of Minnesota Brewing and Gopher State Ethanol, drew many more people than could fit into the Federation's overheated boardroom. So, the meeting was moved outside to the parking lot, where - along with the cooling breeze there - was the tangy, pungent scent that these neighbors know too well. Oftentimes they shouted to be heard over the street traffic while at other times they just shouted.

The big brick brewery has loomed over West Seventh Street since 1855, but residents say there was a big change in the neighborhood this spring when the plant began ethanol production. The plant's air quality expert says the smell is a combination of fatty acids and alcohols. Neighbors say it stinks; it's ruined their barbecues; kept them indoors and some believe it's hurting their health. Alice Stahlman, a native of the area has concerns about the plant's effects on the neighborhood's quality of air as well as its quality of life.

"The biggest concern is it's really reduced the quality of our living, our neighborhood. The smell literally makes people nauseous," she says.

Bob Goddard says the smell has made his asthma symptoms worse. Goddard, who circulated a petition opposing the ethanol production, says health implications are not the only neighborhood concern.

"People are also concerned about property values," Goddard said. "Who's going to want to move into a neighborhood like that? There's people talking about moving already, because they're so sick they almost have to leave."

Gopher State Ethanol is the only one of Minnesota's 14 ethanol plants located in a city. Odor complaints have not been a problem in rural areas. At a June meeting, company President, Jack Lee, promised neighbors that he would take steps to reduce the noise and odor from the plant. Lee has installed a muffler that has been less effective than he'd hoped, but he plans to add to it to limit noise. He says a larger scrubber installed last week has reduced the odor.

"We disconnected the old scrubber Thursday at about 9 a.m.," Lee explained, and we got the new one in place about 5 p.m. Between those hours we had a tremendous number of people calling with concerns over the odor. Since it's been in we haven't had one call."

Lee hopes to complete installation of a carbon dioxide recovery facility by the end of next week. Company engineers say this will not just reduce but eliminate the odor problem. Lee said he thinks residents of the area are generally supportive of the brewery.

"I think the majority of the folks in the neighborhood recognize the brewery as a vital part of the neighborhood and they would like to see us succeed. I think there's a certain element that would like to drive us out of business, but that's the minority."

The latter group was well represented at the Fort Road Federation's meeting. An unidentified woman addressed the group with some vehement remarks that were followed by applause from some of those in attendance.

"I think you should be out of this neighborhood whatever your investments are," she said.

Matthew and Megan Mose watched the meeting as prospective residents of the neighborhood. They've signed a purchase agreement to buy one of the newly constructed town homes down the street from the brewery and expect to close the deal next month. Matthew says brewery management seems to be making a good-faith effort to deal with the problem.

Listening to the concerns of residents, while breathing the plant's odor, left Megan Mose nervous about their impending move into the area.

Members of a group called the West Seventh Clean Air Association are pushing for the plant to be shut down until the odor problem can be solved. Plant management, however, says that working on the smell requires that the plant remain in operation. The hope is to have the carbon dioxide recovery facility in place by July 22nd.