PEABODY — Emerson Street resident Ritamarie Cavicchio said the stench emanating from the Rousselot gelatin plant last week after an equipment problem was the worst she has ever smelled in the 20 years she has lived in the neighborhood.
"It smelled to me like rotten flesh," Cavicchio said.
Cavicchio lives within walking distance of the former Eastman Gelatine Plant, which Rousselot purchased in 2012. She has smelled odors coming from it in the past. But this time, the stench rose during a stifling heat wave and it only got worse at night, she said. People complained for days.
"It was so awful for almost a week. People were disgusted by it," said Cavicchio, who would have liked a better explanation from company about what was causing it.
The city's health director, Sharon Cameron, said Rousselot has worked to address what caused the "very powerful odor" that plagued the neighborhood around the sprawling plant, which sits on Washington Street and Allens Lane.
Cameron said the Board of Health has fined the company $3,000, and the state Department of Environmental Protection has also become involved.
The Board of Health issued three citations against the plant, whose processes convert animal skins and bones into gelatin, under the state's public health nuisance law, citing the company for "excessive odors from manufacturing plant" from July 23 to July 25. The board issued the maximum fine under state law — $1,000 a day.
The odors related to a clarifier tank used during wastewater treatment, where solid particles suspended in the water settle out and form a sludge at the bottom of the tank. The clean water at the top is then sent through the sewers.
However, a "rake" at the bottom of the tank meant to move the sludge around somehow stopped working. The sludge became exposed to the air.
Linda Sapienza, the plant's community relations officer, referred questions to Melissa Gaither, vice president for investor relations and global communications for parent company Darling Ingredients of Irving, Texas. A call and an email was sent to her seeking further comment.
However, Sapienza posted at least two updates on Facebook, one on July 22 and one on July 24, about the "operational upset" to the 80-foot clarifier tank. The wastewater system had to be shut down to fix the rake.
"Upon startup of such a system," Sapienza said, "odors will be generated until the system purges out the older material and comes back in balance ... We are working diligently to finish as soon as possible while following all environmental guidelines."
She likened what happened to meat going bad in a broken refrigerator. But the plant could not just throw it out in the trash.
"Solids that go into the system have to come out. We have fixed our system, and cannot throw material away or wash it down a drain. We must follow environmental laws for our water and solids disposals," she posted.
Cameron said the state DEP sent two inspectors to the plant. DEP spokesman Ed Coletta said the state agency became involved because nuisance odors are considered a form of air pollution.
"We did find nuisance odors on the property and in the neighborhood there," Coletta said.
The DEP issued Rousselot a "notice of enforcement conference," which would involve DEP officials sitting down with the company on the issues it found and how it was going to address them. The conference is scheduled for Aug. 13.
The result of the conference could mean administrative orders or a fine. The matter could also be referred to the state attorney general for further action. It would be a few weeks after the conference before a decision is made.
Cameron said the board received about 35 to 40 complaints from residents.
"I know it's very frustrating to the neighborhood because it is quite unbearable and it does linger for quite some time," she said.
But Cameron said the odor is not a threat to public health.
"As with any other irritant, individuals can have different levels of sensitivity," she added.
A regular occurrence
Odors coming from the gelatin plant are not new. A graph of complaints Cameron provided shows many of them happen in the summer months.
Over the years, the city has issued a variety of enforcement actions due to odors. The most recent was a "cease and desist" order last August amid a rash of complaints from the Emerson Park neighborhood and those living on Lowell, Foster and Washington streets.
Cameron said a few years ago — the graph shows a spike of more than 90 complaints in 2016 — the Board of Health asked the plant to hire an odor consultant to review operations, do neighborhood surveillance and make recommendations to lessen the smell.
The consultant came up with a comprehensive assessment with recommendations. Cameron said Rousselot made "significant expenditures" to upgrade the plant, including covering wastewater containers and adding biofilters.
Up until last week, there were not a lot of complaints this year.
"We were feeling hopeful," Cameron said.
Ward 4 Councilor Ed Charest, who represents the neighborhood, said the neighbors had a right to complain.
"Well, it was horrible, the smell was horrible," Charest said. "It was horrendous."
Charest said he had spoken over the course of several days with the plant manager and Sapienza, and went to the plant to see what was going on.
"I wish there was more communication when things went down in the very beginning before we started to get the bad odors," he said.