Norwood: Millennium Specialty Chemicals (Fishing in Pollution)

by Tim Gilmore, 6/21/2012

On page 26 of Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory, he says, “Stepping off the main road […] lands you right in it: the psychogeographical badlands.” So here we are, off the main road, at a sprawling industrial complex on Crestwood Street near Norwood Avenue and Interstate-95 in the Northside neighborhood of Norwood. A chain link fence surrounds Millennium Specialty Chemicals, and low-income bungalows and wood-frame houses frame the company’s vast wall of boilers, chemical tanks, ventilation stacks, and machinery. Millennium stretches several city blocks and towers above the treeline. You can see the stacks from I-95, but more often than they see it, motorists smell it. So do residents of the neighborhood.

Irony. Millennium makes fragrances and flavors for thousands of consumer products, including shampoos, soaps, toothpaste, and chewing gum. The smell the company emits makes nearby residents physically ill. Sharonda Powell says it nauseates her. Earl Thomas, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, says it nauseates everyone in his family and that he suffers migraines because of it. He says it smells like “rotten licorice,” like a “strange mix of ammonia and sewage.” The smell is “meaty,” it’s like “cheap rancid perfume in a small room. You can’t get away from it.”

The property deeds for the factory date back to 1899. Under different names and owners, the company has been producing fragrances and flavors here since 1910. A century ago, the company tapped pine trees for sap and distilled it into turpentine. Today, the raw material comes from paper mills in the form of crude sulfate turpentine, or CST. Director of Manufacturing Mike Templeton says their odor abatement equipment works well, that the neighborhood has no problem with the company’s odors, and that anyway, it’s better than it used to be. Neighbors agree on the last point only. From 1986 to 1997, when the company was known as SCM Glidco Organic Corporation, its stench was infamous. In the late 1980s, one of the few things people in different parts of the country knew about Jacksonville was that it didn’t smell good, and SCM Glidco was one of five industrial entities responsible for that reputation. Four of those complexes stunk because of crude sulfate turpentine emissions, which Millennium Specialty Chemicals still generates. In 1989, the city’s Environmental Resource Management Division received and verified 5,000 complaints about SCM Glidco, including 100 complaints received in a single hour. The overwhelming community protest led Mayor Tommy Hazouri to use criminal nuisance laws to crack down on these five companies, against which the public previously had almost no recourse at all.

Whatever that smell is, Norwood residents say, it’s probably not safe to breathe it all the time. Sharonda Powell says that “if enough people got together,” something could be done, but she’s not optimistic. “You know how it is with the Northside,” she says. On the mostly poor and mostly black side of town, most people just accept what they see as fate. Standing under an American flag, with his camouflage-painted pickup truck behind him, Earl Thomas says, “The problem is most people on this side of town don’t have the economic power, the connections, to make any change. You would never find this kind of problem on the Southside.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory ranks Millennium as a significant polluter, emitting a yearly rate of more than 62,000 pounds of ammonia and hydrochloric acid. While Millennium’s Environmental Affairs Manager Mike Tipping says such numbers are negligible, Melissa Bush, a Laboratory Chemistry professor at the University of North Florida (on the other side of town, of course) says that living next door to such quantities could be dangerous. She says the sulfur is even more worrisome. The EPA’s public information doesn’t list sulfur emissions, but crude sulfate turpentine is the main cause of Millennium’s stink. Material data safety sheets on sulfur list potential damage from short-term exposure as nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing and headaches, while long-term potential damage also includes allergic reactions, irregular heartbeat, sleep disturbances, and nerve damage.

A teacher at Norwood Elementary School says she can smell Millennium from inside the school. She’s tried to hold her breath, even cover her nose with her shirt, but there’s no escaping it. The air at Norwood has nauseated school kids. The air has made kids’ throats sore. It may have caused more insidious long-term damage as well. Still, a Norwood resident asks why he should complain. “That company’s been here forever. We’re the ghetto. They could care less.” City Councilwoman Gwen Yates, whose district includes the Millennium plant, says she’s never heard a single complaint. Whether her ignorance of the problem stems from political convenience, something more sinister, or the futility Norwood residents attribute to complaining, she says she understands “the fatalism of people whose neighborhoods have experienced neglect for 20, 30, 40 years.” She says that when they see “a little bit get done,” it’s just “not as fast as they would like it to be.” Earl Thomas says, “That smell’s been here since my grandmother lived here when she was young. You can tell them you smell something, but they won’t smell a thing.”

Thousands of friends and family members driving south through Jacksonville on Interstate-95 pass a skyline of huge industrial stacks behind the pine trees and quickly make faces and accuse each other of having farted. The third or fourth time they drive through, they know the smell comes from outside the car and say that Jacksonville smells like a wicked fart.

At the dead end of Druid Hill Lane, a five year-old boy stands completely naked behind a chain-link fence, a small white wood-frame house behind him, and Millennium’s tall gray ventilation stacks rising behind the house. All up and down the roads that dead-end at Millennium, Druid Hill Lane, West 59th Street, someone has placed flyers in mailboxes.

We Don’t Have To Take It No More   The Smell Can Make You Sick I Mean You Health   This Neighborhood Has Got To Come Together    If You Smell Them Call 630-CITY   The City Can Fine Them And Make Them Stop It

Where Tallulah Avenue bridges the mouth of Moncrief Creek that opens out of the Trout River across North Shore, before it trickles beneath Interstate-95 and on toward Moncrief, a half-dozen black men and women whose ages range from 18 to 73 lean on the bridge balustrades with their fishing rods and their gear. Cars zoom past a few feet behind them. Before them, the creek mouth connects into the wetlands out of which rises Millennium Specialty Chemicals. Out of these waters, they catch the trout and catfish they will eat later this afternoon.