Rock Creek Stench Hits Governor Right In The Nose

July 16, 1991|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff writer

Gov. William Donald Schaefer had received enough letters and phone calls from residents to sniff out the problem for himself.

Two weeks ago, the do-it-now governor drove to Rock Creek in Pasadena and took a whiff.

Residents have complained for more than 12 years about the rotten-egg smell caused by hydrogen sulfide gas belched from the creek bottom. Some residents claim the foul-smelling gas has begun to make themill.

Schaefer has been aware of the residents' concerns for some time, said Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for the governor. But when the most recent barrage of citizen complaints arrived, "Being the governorhe is, he decided to stop by and see for himself."

The smell madean impression. Last week, Schaefer approved the final $187,000 needed to dredge two portions of Rock Creek in an experimental, county-state venture to restore the waterway.

"The (Department of the Environment) clearly had been working on this already," Feldmann said. "Thequestion was, would the state have the money available to match county funds? The governor told (Secretary of the Environment) Bob Perciasepe to make the money available."

Since 1988, the county has contributed $850,000 and the state $520,000 to install aerators and dredge the headwaters south of Fort Smallwood Road and Wall Cove. Althoughthe aerators were installed, the dredging had been delayed until theArmy Corps of Engineers endorsed the project and the governor approved the final allocation.

The dredging is scheduled to begin in October.

Still, a beleaguered group of residents is convinced the dredging will not solve their problems.

They worry that the hydrogen sulfide gas is permanently damaging their health. The residents want the Health Department to do something -- they don't know exactly what-- to help them.

The gas is released by bacteria on the creek bottom that digest fish, crabs and algae killed by a lack of oxygen in the water.

"This is a serious problem: We're not just talking aboutaesthetics anymore," said Darlene Schepleng, a Water Oak Point Road resident. "People are becoming physically ill with headaches, nausea,vomiting."

Dr. Katherine Farrell, county community health director, said hydrogen sulfide can cause such symptoms, as well as irritatethe eyes and nasal passages. But Farrell said neither her agency northe Department of the Environment has found hazardous levels of the gas around the creek.

Farrell said the gas, which is odorous even in minute amounts, is more of a nuisance than a danger. The symptoms described by residents are reversible and not life-threatening, she said.

When the stench reaches its peak, Farrell said, residents should use common sense, staying indoors with their windows closed and, if they feel ill, consulting their personal physicians.

People with pre-existing heart and respiratory ailments should be especially wary, Farrell said, because the gas could aggravate these conditions.

The Health Department will work with the state Department of the Environment to monitor the amount of gas emanating from the creek more closely, spokeswoman Evelyn Stein said.

But that's not good enough, says Pekin Road resident Linda Dooley. She and her neighbors want the upper reaches of the headwaters, nearest them, dredged as well.

"We're not going to be satisfied with lesser areas being dredged when the real cancer is being left behind," said Brenda Jann, whose parents live across the water from Dooley. "You can't just leave people exposed to that kind of noxious hazard to their health."

In fact, several residents complained that sections of the creek nearest them are not being dredged.

"The whole creek needs to be dredged," said Robert Armbrewster, a Cottage Grove resident. "I don't know what dredging up near Pekin Bridge will do. It's stagnant all the way down. Tosay, 'Yeah, I think the whole creek is going to flow now because theend of the creek is dredged' -- I think that's dreaming."

David Almy, an aide to County Executive Robert R. Neall, agreed the whole creek needs to be dredged. But the money is not available, he said. Between 1987 and 1994, the county will have spent $4 million on engineering studies, dredging and aerators in Rock Creek.

Almy said the county will apply to the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the upper headwaters. But even if the engineers approve, the county does not havethe $165,000 needed to dredge that area this fall, he said.

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