February 3, 2023
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St. Petersburg knew about ‘health and safety hazard’ in Childs Park since 2007

Read Time:7 Minute, 40 Second

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Ken Welch wants to do something about the mysterious smell that has lingered over the Childs Park neighborhood for decades.

Welch, born and raised in southern St. Petersburg, said he always thought it was odd that there was an industrial hub in the middle of a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood along the Pinellas Trail. Residents believe that the gas-like smell originates there.

“It’s obviously an issue we need to get to the bottom of,” Welch told the Tampa Bay Times.

In April, the Times reported on residents’ efforts to push for an end to the pervasive foul odor. In recent years, the smell has sickened neighbors, prompted a City Council member to leave the neighborhood and disrupted nearby Fairmount Park Elementary.

Related: South St. Pete neighbors confront decades-old mystery: What’s that smell?

Welch asked his staff for history and background on the matter following the Times’ report. He was provided with a memo that shows the city has been aware of residents’ concerns since at least 2007.

The memo references a strategic plan for revitalizing Childs Park. Under Mayor Rick Baker, the city paid $150,000 to a consulting firm to produce the plan. The 159-page report identified the industrial corridor in the Childs Park neighborhood as a “health and safety hazard.”

It also singles out Howco Environmental Services, an oil-recycling operation with tall black tanks that rise above Childs Park. The 2007 report said residents described Howco as an example of “a detrimental use situated in the midst of residential homes.”

Several residents have told the Times they believe the plant is the source of the smell.

Brother John Muhammad, the president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, said he was aware of the strategic plan but didn’t know about the excerpt calling out the industrial corridor.

“I do think somebody should’ve been interested in it and something should’ve happened, but it didn’t,” he said.

In April, 15 years since that report came out, the neighborhood association launched a “Smell Something, Say Something” campaign to encourage residents to report foul odors as they happen. The group is working with university scientists and plans to install several air quality monitors in the neighborhood, the first of them this week. Members have also canvassed the neighborhood with fliers and door hangers telling people how to complain by phone and online to the Pinellas County Air Quality Division.

Some neighbors have told the Times that, before the campaign, they didn’t know where to go with complaints, were confused by the county’s cumbersome reporting system or gave up after inaction. Others said they were so used to dealing with the odor that they didn’t file complaints.

The memo prepared for Welch found that the first air quality complaint against Howco was made in 2011. In general, odor complaints in Childs Park to the city and county, which oversees air quality, have been rare — single-digits over a span of years.

In May, after the launch of the awareness campaign, 26 complaints were reported.

‘Oil refinery (hazard)’

In October 2006, residents gathered at Fairmount Park Elementary to give input for the Greater Childs Park Area Strategic Plan. With maps and aerial photographs of their neighborhood in front of them, they were asked to comment and identify assets, issues and opportunities.

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One group listed the industrial area as a potential asset, though the report doesn’t elaborate. But others counted some of its businesses — specifically “oil companies” and “oil refinery (hazard)” — as drawbacks. Among the solutions offered by one table of residents: “Relocate or improve oil refinery on 43rd Street.”

That’s how many residents today refer to Howco, which recycles motor oil by heating it up and driving water out of it. Nothing has changed since the report was published.

In 2021, a county investigation found that Howco had violated a state ordinance outlawing objectionable odors, after residents nearly a mile north of the plant complained of a smell like “jet fuel.”

The city memo given to Welch that references the 2007 plan also found that Howco is the only business in the corridor to receive odor or air quality complaints or violations in the past decade. (Other businesses have been cited for different environmental infractions, the report noted.)

The report also found that the “deterioration of visual character” caused by the industries hurt property values, and the industrial uses next to homes lack adequate buffering, “resulting in incompatible land use development patterns.” It says the homes closest to the industrial corridor were built from 1947 to 1955, years before Howco was built in 1973.

Howco has denied producing the odors, and it has said it wants to work with the community and the county’s Air Quality Division to get to the bottom of the problem.

The 2007 report didn’t explicitly mention odor or explain how consultants arrived at the conclusion that the industrial corridor posed a threat to residents’ health and safety. The plan largely focused on economic development, social services and neighborhood aesthetics — not environmental hazards.

Given those factors, it’s unsurprising that officials didn’t latch onto the “health and safety hazards” line, said Sharon Wright, the city’s sustainability manager, who compiled the memo that resurfaced the plan. (Wright began working for the city in 2014 and was not involved in the 2007 report.) Plus, she said, the report’s other findings and suggestions laid the groundwork for other efforts to improve the quality of life in the area, such as the creation of the southern St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area.

“I don’t want to minimize at all that we want to make that neighborhood better and make all of our neighborhoods healthy,” she said. “I think we have something that needs to be overcome now, and I think the businesses are engaging.”

‘There are scents to what we do’

At its last meeting, in mid-May, the Childs Park Neighborhood Association had a first-time guest: Lee A. Morris, Howco’s operations manager, who told residents that the company is “totally transparent.”

Morris listened as residents expressed frustration that the smell has lingered for years. They had questions: What do you do? What hours do you operate? Do you ever notice the scent yourself?

Morris said there is a “very mild scent” of petroleum. He said Howco employees are “constantly” walking around the perimeter of the facility looking for anything that could emit a smell.

“Yeah, sure, there are scents to what we do,” he said. “Why we’re here is to understand that and be a part of trying to find what these causes are or what the sources are.”

In an email response to follow-up questions about whether Howco had considered proactive odor-mitigation techniques, Morris said he had “no further comments than what I stated in the meeting.” He did not respond to questions about the 2007 report.

Wright, the city’s sustainability manager, said Howco is “being hyperaware” of the smell, and that Howco’s maintenance workers are proactively painting its tanks and cleaning up the area.

TECO Peoples Gas told the Times in April that when one of its customers in the industrial area is active, “a natural gas-type odor emits from its exhaust stacks.” The customer was not identified.

TECO spokesperson Sylvia Vega said Tuesday that the utility conducted two additional surveys of the area using advanced detection technology and did not find any emissions associated with natural gas leaks.

New air monitor

Welch said he plans to meet with Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers to install an air quality monitoring system in the neighborhood. Flowers represented Childs Park as a St. Petersburg City Council member from 1998 to 2008.

City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who currently represents the area, moved out of the neighborhood out of fear for her family’s health.

On Thursday, the Childs Park Neighborhood Association and University of South Florida researchers will install an air quality monitor at Gospel Ministries on 15th Avenue S. More will follow later this month, Muhammad said.

There’s been discussion about installing another monitor at the Howco site, he said. Wright said Howco was open to the idea and asked for more information.

That the company is engaged in the odor battle is progress, said Muhammad, the neighborhood association president, though he’s not convinced the oil recycler is “doing this from a place of sincerity and wanting to be a good neighbor.

“I think they’re just doing something to make the bad PR go away,” he added. “Where were you for the last 40 years, is my question.”

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Tampa Bay Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.

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