PORT TOWNSEND, Washington (From news reports) -- The state Department of Ecology has seen a significant increase in complaints about odor from the Port Townsend Paper Co. mill.
So far, there have been a documented 339 complaints in 2017. Of those, 174 were complaints submitted during September, and Ecology staff members said they are still counting.
September's complaints were up significantly from the 32 complaints submitted in August and 43 complaints in July, according to Shingo Yamazaki of Ecology, who is responsible for all permitting and inspection at the Port Townsend mill.
Yamazaki said he visited the mill last week and found all emissions systems operating correctly. He added that there have been a few small blips of higher emissions recorded in September and early October, but none that have cause for concern.
"They're still well within the legal limits," Yamazaki said.
According to Yamazaki, since the mill runs constantly, any change in wind and weather patterns can cause odorous emissions from the mill to blow into areas of Port Townsend where they can settle.
"Since the mill runs 24/7, smell can't be regulated depending on weather," Yamazaki said. "It just wouldn't be efficient."
Local citizen groups have been collecting data and submitting complaints to Ecology. Two Facebook groups, the PT Airwatchers with 205 members and MillOdorous with 182 members, see odor reports posted every day.
"We decided to start a group on Facebook since it's a convenient forum," said Gretchen Brewer, founder of the PT Airwatchers Facebook group. "There's a whole range of people we weren't reaching through other channels."
Brewer said the smell has grown worse in the past few months and with more development in town, more people are being exposed to the odor as well.
Brewer said the group has contacted Ecology but so far haven't been told what might be causing the recent increase in noticeable odors.
"We just haven't gotten a good answer as to why there's this uptick in stench," Brewer said.
MillOdorus group administrator Nancy Botta posted that she recently sent 200 odor reports and a dozen of the top group comments from September to Ecology and a number of local groups, including the Port Townsend City Council and Jefferson County commissioners.
The MillOdorus group also tracks complaints using a Google Map. So far, there have already been 50 complaints from all over Port Townsend, from Mill Road to downtown to the North Beach neighborhood, recorded on the MillOdorus Facebook page.
Yamazaki said that simply the position of the mill at a slightly lower elevation from most of the business and residential areas causes the odor to stick around longer.
Once it's blown out of the mill, it will settle into some of the lower-lying areas, including downtown.
"The odor compounds are mostly heavier gasses, so they tend to sit low," Yamazaki said. "Port Townsend is kind of in the unfortunate position where there's a lot of things that can contribute to odor."
Yamazaki added that the cooler temperatures that hit in September and now October could also be aggravating the odors.
"We are operating well within our environmental permits," said Felix Vicino, human resources manager for the Port Townsend Paper Corporation.
"The state's Ecology Department recently stated that high pressure and low winds are a factor, and we concur."
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