by Tim Gilmore, 9/29/2018
1. “The City Stinks.”
It happened all the time. A businessman stepped off the plane, said, “What’s that smell?” and somebody answered, “Jacksonville.” A 1983 Associated Press story bore headlines like “It Isn’t Roses You Smell When in Jacksonville.” The story began, “In Jacksonville the problem is—well, the city stinks.”
Jacksonville’s history reeked with events like the Great Stocking Rot of 1949 and the Yellow Fallout of 1978.
In the earlier event, the city’s air coagulated into such a vicious witches’ brew that, as The Tallahassee Democrat put it, “Women’s hosiery disintegrated on their legs.”
A Westside resident named Jan Hill recalled that when she walked outside, “her stockings suddenly started to run and the sheets she hung on the clothesline developed tiny holes.”
In the Yellow Fallout of 1978, a “sticky yellow film” descended on hundreds of new cars at World Cars, Inc. at 709 Talleyrand Avenue, causing an estimated $200,000 in damages, and car dealer George Herbert threatened to sue the city. The City of Jacksonville blamed the atmospheric scum on the nearby Alton Box Company plant, while Herbert claimed the residue came from the city’s Buckman Sewage Treatment Plant.
In 1980, the “Yellow Fallout” revisited the city. Conditions remained bitter, destructive to the touch, and six years later, BMW of North America stopped shipping 15,000 cars each year through the Port of Jacksonville, even after World Cars paid $275,000 in 1986 “to remove the paint-destroying acidic soot.”
Jacksonville’s water and air pollution had helped trigger the state of emergency that led to the complete replacement of city and county governments with one consolidated city-county in 1968, as did grand jury indictments of city leaders, disaccreditation all public high schools, and violent racial tensions. Still, it took another two decades after Consolidation, and the ebullience of a one-term mayor of Middle Eastern descent, Tommy Hazouri, in this once-most-egregious Jim-Crow town, to defeat the city’s stink.
Hazouri’s administration tamed the paper mills Jefferson Smurfit, formerly Alton Box Company, and Seminole Kraft, as well as the chemical company Union Camp. Only SCM Glidco, the city’s most villainous producer of odor, eluded the mayor’s grasp. Under Hazouri, Jacksonville became a different city, though its malodorous reputation would take years to abate.
SCM Glidco, however, continued to belch its satanic halitosis all over the mostly black Northside neighborhoods around it, and when Hazouri left office in 1991, Jacksonville City Council appointed Glidco’s CEO, George Robbins, to the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board.
2. Meaty / Rancid / Rotten
On page 26 of Lights Out for the Territory, Iain Sinclair says, “Stepping off the main road […] lands you right in it: the psychogeographical badlands.”
So here we are, off the main road, at a 50-acre, 55-building industrial complex on Crestwood Street near Norwood Avenue and Interstate-95 on the Northside. A chain-link fence surrounds the Symrise chemical plant, formerly SCM Glidco.
Lines of century-old low-income wood-frame houses, punctuated by two or three tall hardwood abodes with dormer windows, frame the company’s long wall of boilers, chemical tanks, ventilation stacks, and machinery. Symrise stretches several city blocks and towers above the treeline. You can see the stacks from I-95, but more often than motorists see it, they smell it. So do residents of the neighborhood.
Here’s the irony. Symrise makes fragrances and flavors for thousands of consumer products, including shampoos, soaps, toothpaste, and chewing gum, but 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, 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.”
3. A Century of Stink
Property deeds for the factory date back to 1899. Under different names and owners, this plant has made flavors and fragrances here since 1910, when it operated as Standard Turpentine Co., funded largely by lumber magnate Wellington Cummer.
On July 23, 1962, Jacksonville police declared a state of emergency and evacuated the surrounding Norwood neighborhood and much of North Shore, just to the north, when bright rusty orange clouds of toxic bromine gas poured up from the Glidden Company, across the streets and waters, and over Northern Duval County.
A gas line connecting a tank car to a storage tank had broken while transferring bromine, a chemical related to chlorine and used to make dyes. Eight people were hospitalized and six others, the Times-Union reported, “received treatment for gas burns from private physicians.” The acrid sickly-sweet emanation bowled immediately through the houses of surrounding streets, and residents watched the orange clouds turn sharp yellow in the sky.
While firefighters blasted the spill with hoses, 22 police officers, along with several Florida Highway Patrol units, went door-to-door, evacuating neighborhoods. When residents of San Mateo, above the Trout and Broward Rivers, and Highlands, above the Ribault and Trout Rivers, began to complain of burning eyes, throats and lungs, police evacuated those neighborhoods too.
Two women fleeing their homes stopped at the Jacksonville Zoo on the north shore of the Trout River to warn riverfront picnickers directly in the path of the coming gas leak. The picnickers fled, but as zoo officials couldn’t get all the animals housed quickly enough, rust-colored toxic clouds hanging low in the heavy humidity soon wafted across the elephants and giraffes.
The tanker contained 2,555 gallons of liquid bromine, which converts to a gas upon contact with air. Police kept residents from re-entering their neighborhoods from about 6:15 to 8:15. One officer said the Northside of Jacksonville looked like a ghost town in the early evening. Company chemist G.W. Hoover told the press that only exposure lasting longer than 30 minutes should be considered dangerous, though bromine exposures could cause internal organ and neurological damage.
Company officials always said the plant’s effusions posed no health risks. Between 1970 and 1975, however, according to a 1982 study published in the medical journal Cancer, Duval County had the highest death rate from lung cancer in the nation. A 1988 Associated Press story reported Jacksonville’s mortality rates still among the highest, quoting Dennis McDonagh of the Heart and Lung Institute at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, “Lung cancer is a consequence of your environment.”
According to a 1969 “Special News Report” by WJXT-TV, the plant, owned then by the Glidden Company, dumped 216,000 gallons of chemical waste into Moncrief Creek, which lies just beneath it.
In November 1971, the city’s Air Pollution Control Board invited neighborhood comment in public hearings concerning the Glidden Chemical Company. Someone complained that on days when the odor was thickest, she hardly could breathe. Another neighbor described the smell, which gave him constant headaches, as that of a “polecat boiled in sauerkraut.” One neighbor testified that even on its least offensive days, Glidden’s odors resided deep “in his furniture and clothes.” He could drive nowhere else in the city, nor leave the city, nor visit his relatives in Georgia and Alabama, without stinking of rotten eggs and sickened syrup. The smell coated him like a second skin.
But Robert P.T. Young, Glidden’s vice president, testified to his company’s strides toward good citizenship in the decade since he’d arrived. He’d personally supervised neighborhood cleanups, wading through Moncrief Creek, lifting out car tires, refrigerators, clumps of what might be bone or extirpated tree root systems, declaring the “air in the vicinity of the Jacksonville factory […] as safe as it was in 1909.”
In 1980, a study for the mayor’s office conducted by Environmental Science and Engineering of Gainesville, listed the plant, then called SCM Organics, one of the city’s four largest odor producers.
In 1985, WJXT-TV produced a documentary, parts of which aired nationally, called The Smell of Money. The title came from a comment by CSX Transportation Chairman Prime Osborn, who said that to him, the city’s “odor smells like money,” since olfactory offenders raked in big revenues as part of the Jacksonville economy.
An older Jacksonville resident named Joseph Hagan told filmmakers, “You can feel it goin’ down in your lungs, and it’s just cuttin’, it seem like, acid-like.”
An older woman named Mattie Browning, whose entire Arlington neighborhood was evacuated in 1980 after a Union Camp Corporation chemical spill just across the St. Johns River, told filmmakers she’d had to wear face masks to work outside and go to bed at night. Her lungs once could handle the noxious effluvia, but after the Union Camp Spill, her body couldn’t bear the air inside her own home.
“It makes my life miserable,” she said, “and the damage that was done through this pollution has caused my condition to worsen.”
In October 1987, William C. Gentry, Tommy Hazouri’s self-appointed environmental special counsel, advised the mayor that Jacksonville’s paper mills were adopting new technologies to tamp down and eventually eliminate odors. Chemical companies Union Camp Corporation and SCM Glidco, however, were not. Gentry’s advice and reports from the city’s Division of Bio-Environmental Services would help shape Hazouri’s Omnibus Environmental Ordinance.
Gentry declared SCM Glidco “the single major odor producing source in the community.” Not only did Glidco’s sulfurous and sickly-sweet smells film the neighborhoods along Moncrief Creek and the southside of the Trout River like atmospheric scum, but, as James Crooks documents in Jacksonville: The Consolidation Story, Glidco dumped chemical waste “into streams and sewers, flowing untreated into the city’s sewage treatment plant [in an] amount […] one hundred times more than the Buckman plant could treat without causing its own odor nuisance. Ninety-five percent of those pollutants came from SCM Glidco.”
A 1987 grand jury indicted Jefferson Smurfit, Seminole Kraft, Union Camp and SCM Glidco for violations of antipollution laws on both state and city levels, charging the companies sunk property values and made residents sick. When the companies challenged the finding, courts upheld the civil basis of the law, but decided against criminal portions. The grand jury had been clear in citing all four companies for “criminal negligence.”
Glidco took the city to court, paid a $1500 odor fine, and, as Crooks writes, “claimed by January 1990 to have eliminated all sulfur odors as a result of $2 million spent on 27 different projects.” In 2003, spokesmen for the plant’s later incarnation as Millennium Special Chemicals claimed, in my Folio Weekly cover story about the effects of the plant’s odors on surrounding Norwood, almost the same dollar amount and number of new projects.
When Hazouri left office in 1991, Jacksonville City Council, in blatant disrespect toward the outgoing mayor, appointed Glidco’s Chief Executive George Robbins, who’d railed against Hazouri’s environmental and anti-odor efforts every step of the way, “industry representative” to the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board.
SCM Glidco continued to coat the inner Northside with its thick sickly chemical effusions, then did so still as Millennium Specialty Chemicals from 1997 to 2009, a subsidiary of LyondellBasell Industries in the Netherlands, then Renessenz LLC, of Pinova Holdings, Inc., based in Brunswick, Georgia, and since 2016, for Symrise AG, based in Germany.
The money trail behind the fetid funk has darted about the American South and Western Europe, but here on Moncrief Creek, in inner-Northside-Jacksonville, the stink remains the same.
And now, as a century and more ago, a dozen black men and women, whose ages range from 18 to 73, lean out over Moncrief Creek with their fishing lines and bait. Out of these waters, this murk, they catch the trout and catfish they’ll skin and smoke and eat this afternoon.
4. Crude Sulphate “Ghetto”
A century ago, Standard Turpentine Co. tapped pine trees for sap it distilled into turpentine. For decades now, raw material’s come from Southern tree farms in the form of crude sulphate turpentine, or CST. In 1987, SCM Glidco was the largest manufacturer of fragrances processed from CST in the United States. Jacksonville’s Union Camp Corporation was second.
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. Before Mayor Tommy Hazouri’s administration, the public had no recourse to criminal nuisance grievances.
Three decades later, 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 this mostly poor and mostly black side of the urban core, most people accept what they see as fate. Sharonda’s never heard of Consolidation, can’t say who’s mayor, has never heard the name Hazouri.
Standing under an American flag draped across a front-yard tree, 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 never find this kind of problem on the Southside.”
He’s not sure what Consolidation means either, but he doesn’t like the sound of it, especially if it’s about “making government bigger.” When I mention the Environmental Protection Agency, he cringes, says he doesn’t like Big Government trying to control his life.
Numerous neighborhood roads long ago were cut in two where the Standard Turpentine Co. or Glidden partitioned the oldest chemical plant in town from the neighborhood that surrounds it. Broxton Street declines two blocks from Norwood Avenue, hits Symrise at Burton Avenue, then continues beyond the partition of the Crude Sulphate Turpentine plant. If only the stench stopped at the border.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory ranks Millennium Specialty Chemicals / Renessenz LLC / Symrise as a significant polluter, emitting a yearly rate of more than 62,000 pounds of ammonia and hydrochloric acid into the air.
In 2003, Millennium’s Environmental Affairs Manager Mike Tipping told me governmental numbers were negligible, but Melissa Bush, professor of Laboratory Chemistry at the University of North Florida called living next door to such emissions dangerous. The sulfur, she said, is even more worrisome. The EPA’s 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 includes allergic reactions, irregular heartbeat, sleep disturbances, and nerve damage.
A teacher at Norwood Elementary School says she smells Glidco / Millennium / Renessenz / Symrise inside the school’s halls and her classrooms. She’s tried to hold her breath, even covered her nose with her shirt, but there’s no escaping it. The air at Norwood nauseates first- and second-graders. The air makes kids’ throats sore. It may have caused, and currently cause, more insidious long-term damage as well.
A Norwood resident, riding his bike about the factory, hulking, sneering, asks me why he should complain. “That company been here forever, thiss the ghetto, like I should pretend they care.”
In 2003, City Council Member Gwen Yates, whose district included the century-old turpentine plant, said she’d never heard a single complaint. Whether her ignorance of the problem and its history stemmed from political convenience, something more sinister, or the futility Norwood residents attribute to voicing their concerns, she said she understood “the fatalism of people whose neighborhoods have experienced neglect for 20, 30, 40 years.”
Yates said that when urban Northsiders see “a little bit get done,” it’s just “not as fast as they’d like it to be.”
Earl Thomas says, “That smell’s been here since my grandmother lived here when she was young. You tell them you smell something, you tell them it makes you sick, but they won’t smell a thing.”
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 Symrise’s tall gray ventilation stacks shambling skyward overhead.
All up and down the roads that dead-end at the chemical plant, Druid Hill Lane, West 59th Street, flyers protrude from 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
The most fatalistic citizens feel they’ve least need of understanding history. I see why. History illuminates the forces and powers that move across lives and families and cultures. They’ve understood themselves powerless before such forces all their lives.
Where Tallulah Avenue bridges the mouth of Moncrief Creek near the Trout River, in the old neighborhood of North Shore, before the creek trickles beneath Interstate-95, a dozen old black men who look to have lived a hundred years in the sun lean on bridge balustrades with their fishing rods and gear. Cars zoom past just behind them.
Perhaps this morning, this afternoon, they’ll snag their polluted dinner from the waters, anodyne to an injustice that’s lived self-aware in their marrow all their lives, always tempered by congenital fatalism. History’s not the only history. Each life carries its own.