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Des Moines, Iowa, is in a stinky situation


The city of Des Moines, Iowa, has been remaking itself for several decades as a center of the insurance industry and data processing. But it has had to contend with a silent, invisible threat, an overwhelming stench that drifts through downtown on certain days. While the city's tried to address the smell for several years, it's recently embarked on a new strategy that officials hope will beat the problem once and for all. SuAnn Donovan is the neighborhood inspection division administrator for the city and is helping to resolve this stinky situation. She joins us now. Hi, Sue.


RASCOE: So, OK, how would you describe this smell?

DONOVAN: Well, most people complain about a smell that is akin to burning, rotting flesh.

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness. I don't know what that smells like (laughter).

DONOVAN: Well, it's not pleasant.

RASCOE: So like food burning?

DONOVAN: Well, it's coming from a rendering plant where they render down carcasses. That is one of the alleged sources of the odor. We also have some meat processing plants in the city.

RASCOE: So it seems like we're not really talking just about one smell. We're talking about a lot of different smells that people may be picking up on.

DONOVAN: I think, yes, you're talking about several different smells that intermingle at times.

RASCOE: How serious is this smell? And is it worse on some days versus others?

DONOVAN: Yeah, it can be worse on some days. There are weather events that happen that trap the air over the city, and it can't move. And so it builds up. And it get quite annoying.

RASCOE: Has the smell always been a problem, or is it getting worse? Or is it that the dynamics of the area are changing?

DONOVAN: I would say it's the dynamics of the downtown area that are changing. Over the last 20 years, we've had a surge in multifamily residential units. So when you increase the number of people living closer to the plants, it generates more complaints.

RASCOE: Oh, and so they're kind of outsiders who are complaining about the smells because they're not used to it?

DONOVAN: Well, that's probably one source of frustration for new people who move into the area. You know, I grew up on a farm, and we were used to hog confinement smell. And it was the smell of money. But that isn't necessarily everybody's view of the different odors that they're experiencing.

RASCOE: What has been done to try to address this?

DONOVAN: We have an odor hotline. And people call in, and they say, I smell something. If we get 10 of these calls with the exact same descriptor - and there's a list of them that they can choose from - then we send somebody out trying to find the source of the smell. That's really hard to do because wind changes. So the thought is if we can get a scientific study, find out where the sources of the odor are, get an idea of what a acceptable level of odor dispersement is and then ask those companies to use best business practices to reach that cap that we would have a better solution to the problem going forward.

RASCOE: SuAnn Donovan is the neighborhood inspection division administrator for Des Moines, Iowa. Thanks for joining us.

DONOVAN: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.