How can something that helps so many smell so bad? Joe Patton wonders every time he gets a whiff of the pharmaceutical factory behind his Brooklyn Park home.
Kanasco Ltd., which manufactures synthetic penicillin, has been fined nearly $90,000 for environmental violations over the past decade. But the odor persists.
"It's a nasty smell, sort of like decaying grass that's been left in a bag out in the sun," Mr. Patton said. "Sometimes, it's so strong you can taste it. A really foul chemical smell just permeates your mouth."
It has become routine for Mr. Patton and his neighbors. Foul vapors waft over the knoll between Kanasco and their Sunnyfield Estates neighborhood, forcing them to abandon their decks, patios and pools to seek shelter behind air-conditioned doors.
Sometimes, even going inside is not enough. In one of the worst episodes four years ago, 17 homes on Cedar Avenue were evacuated when a refrigeration unit spilled methylene chloride into the public sewer. Seven people -- including several rendered unconscious by fumes that penetrated their homes -- were rushed to the hospital.
Files at the state Air Management Administration are thick with complaints from people in the Sunnyfield, Arundel Gardens and Cedar Avenue neighborhoods who say they've suffered headaches, nausea and burning in their eyes and throats as a result of the odors.
At the state Hazardous and Solid Waste Administration, volumes chronicle Kanasco's 18-year history of unauthorized dumping into storm drains and public sewers. The state cracked down on the company in 1974, 1982, 1986 and 1988.
The state Environmental Crimes Unit is still investigating last summer's spill of 1,000 gallons of methylene chloride into a janitor's sink and then into the public sewer. And the Air Management Administration proposed $31,000 in new civil penalties this spring for air violations at the plant.
Still the state renews Kanasco's operating permits every year. On the back of its applications for air-quality permits, state inspectors acknowledge residents' complaints but ultimately recommend approval.
"The company continues to be a source of odor problems," inspector Ross A. Oliver noted on the 1985 application, "but I don't believe that the department has a case sufficiently strong for denying an operating permit. Therefore, I recommend that it be issued."
Neighbors and elected officials from Brooklyn Park want to know why.
"There is too much at stake here," said state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, who lives in Sunnyfield Estates. "It's not just an inconvenience they are causing. It's a matter of health."
After more than a decade of prodding by the state to clean up their act, the recent air violations prove Kanasco officials "are simply not responsible enough to operate that facility," said Mr. Jimeno.
John Goheen, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the state is working with Kanasco to bring the company into compliance.
"The department has always believed in progressively stiffer penalties," Mr. Goheen said. "That's the road we're going down with this company. And if the situation warrants it in the future, we wouldn't issue any permits."
This spring, the Air Management Administration proposed charging Kanasco $6,000 in civil penalties after inspectors traced "a sweetish, fishy odor with a sharp edge" to the plant on May 5 and 26. Air regulations prohibit the emission of "vapors, gases or odors beyond the property line in such a manner that a nuisance or air pollution is caused."
The penalties also covered air violations during last summer's spill.
Another $25,000 in penalties were proposed in April after Kanasco violated monitoring requirements in its air permit. Kanasco is negotiating with the state to reduce the fines.
OC The state is reviewing plans by Kanasco to bring the plant into
better compliance. Since the spill last summer, the company says it has stepped up training in the proper handling of toxic chemicals, established a hot line for residents to report odors to the company, and installed a windsock to track breezes.
In a July 2 plan, Kanasco owner John D. Copanos proposes installing equipment to scrub fumes before they escape the plant and reducing the amount of chemicals stored in a tank farm between the factory and nearby homes. He said the company is seeking a $450,000 loan to finance those measures.
To reduce the amount of hazardous wastes stored at the plant, Kanasco has asked the county Department of Utilities to be reconnected to the public sewer system. The county severed Kanasco's connection after last summer's spill.
The county has approved reconnecting Kanasco's bathrooms if the company sets aside $100,000 to clean up any future spills. Industrial discharges will not be allowed.
Senator Jimeno and other legislators oppose any reconnection and have appealed to County Executive Robert Neall.