ST. FRANCIS – Deborah Kessel and Robert Kress hear the first barrels banging at 5 a.m. most weekdays.
An hour later, the smokestack atop Mid-America Steel Drum begins churning out chalky white, often putrid-smelling plumes of exhaust over their St. Francis home. Sometimes it hangs on the ground like clumps of cotton.
One day the smell may be like Super Glue, the next soap — or paint or magic markers or rotten eggs. Depending on the wind direction, it ranges from a faint odor to an overwhelming stench.
“Calm days are the worst. It’s almost like a fog machine. The smoke goes up 10 to 20 feet and then it just envelops the place,” Kress said. “You go outside, take a whiff, and your stomach turns.”
Kessel and Kress live a couple hundred feet from Mid-America’s smokestack, sharing a property line with the plant, which refurbishes and recycles 55-gallon steel drums and plastic containers that often arrive with chemicals inside.
The couple, along with dozens of other residents, say the plant ruins their quality of life and — they fear — is damaging their health.
“We just want to know what the hell is coming out of that stack and if it’s dangerous,” Kessel said.
In February, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation exposed workplace hazards and environmental violations at the plant and others here and around the country, prompting investigations by five state and federal agencies that so far have resulted in more than 70 violations and $114,000 in fines.
With reports of the bad odors continuing, the Journal Sentinel tested the air and examined other testing documents that both show the St. Francis plant is emitting pollutants that constitute — at a minimum — a nuisance odor and which may be leading to residents’ health ailments.
The independent testing by a private company revealed the presence of industrial chemicals used by the plant were being emitted over the neighborhood.
Prompted by the initial investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did three rounds of its own testing over the summer and recently reported results that track with the Journal Sentinel’s findings.
The EPA has asked the City of St. Francis Health Department to take air samples for them, starting in January, according to city officials. All odor complaints will go to the Health Department, and a city employee will go out and take a sample and return it to the EPA.
The St. Francis School District has hired a firm to also test the air around Willow Glen Primary, which is about a half-mile from the plant, said Superintendent Blake Peuse.
The local barrel recycling plants — in St. Francis, Oak Creek and Milwaukee — are operated by Container Life Cycle Management, a joint venture majority owned by Ohio-based Greif Inc.
Last month, the EPA issued 20 violations against the three Mid-America plants in Milwaukee County.
The agency did air testing outside the St. Francis plant in May, July and August and detected several volatile organic compounds, or VOC’s, that can lead to headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, numbness or tingling in hands and feet and other ailments, according to EPA records.
Two EPA investigators experienced these type of symptoms when they spent a week in the St. Francis neighborhood in March talking to residents about the plant.
Working with another federal agency, the EPA has yet to complete and release a report on whether the emissions pose a risk to human health.
Testing shows nuisance
To investigate complaints of odors near the Mid-America plant, the Journal Sentinel hired RHP Risk Management of Chicago, which tested air around the facility over five days in mid-November.
The firm used the same type of air sample equipment as the EPA to measure the average level of chemicals for each day.
The firm also captured minute-by-minute spikes in chemical concentrations. These are important, the testers said, to evaluate what may be creating certain odors at any given time.
Although hampered by unusually strong winds, the firm found a number of the same pollutants that had been detected by the EPA in its earlier samples.
The Journal Sentinel testing showed for the first time that the air is more than smelly — it crosses into what is considered a nuisance odor.
There is no federal definition, but nuisance odors are generally defined as interfering with people’s enjoyment of their property or causing serious annoyance because of their repulsive smell, according to a review of Wisconsin and other state statutes.
Smell intensity can be subjective depending on the person, but the levels detected by RHP Risk Management crossed the threshold into being a nuisance, said Jacob Persky, an industrial hygienist and co-founder of the Chicago-based environmental consulting firm.
“Undisputed. There is an odor issue,” Persky said. “The question is what it is and how high of a level is it?”
A week of air quality testing gives a minute-by-minute look at the level of airborne pollutants present at four homes near the Mid-America Steel Drum in St. Francis. The peaks in chemical concentration were found to be associated with wind direction and proximity to the facility. The independent testing by a private company revealed the presence of industrial chemicals that are used by the plant and were being emitted over the neighborhood. For instance, on Friday, a southern wind brought spikes in pollutants to the home site north of the plant. The testing revealed similar patterns on other days. Testing detected pollutants which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says may be leading to health ailments such as headaches, sinus problems and fatigue.
The testing found chemicals associated with industrial operations — painting, in particular.
What is not as clear is what health risks may be present.
The testing detected cancer-causing pollutants in the area, but without further testing, they could not be definitively associated with the plant.
In its testing, the EPA detected methylene chloride — which has been found to be a probable carcinogen — coming from the plant.
Persky cautioned that the testing results were affected by the wind and only reflect the plants’ operations that particular week.
Kress and Kessel both said the week when the Journal Sentinel did testing they smelled little from the plant, which is unusual.
Wind is a key determiner of what they and others will smell near the plant, they said.
“The only thing that saves us is a high wind day,” Kessel said.
The smell and illegal emissions from the plant are a longstanding issue.
In 2005, when the plant was Kitzinger Cooperage, residents picketed the plant with signs that said, “Ask about the stench.” In 2010, the plant paid $220,000 in fines for emissions violations.
In 2015, a Department of Natural Resources inspector experienced a burning sensation in his sinus and throat from what he described as “significant, obnoxious and objectionable” odors and issued a warning letter.
After the Journal Sentinel investigation, the DNR issued a series of violations against the Mid-America facilities, including St. Francis where “the department believes there are objectionable odors” based on inspector observations.
A Greif spokeswoman said the company is aware of the smell complaints in St. Francis and said it extended the height of the smokestack by 20 feet in the fall and “adjusted production” to try to fix the problem. She did not explain what “adjusted production” means.
“We are aware these measures have not fully resolved their concerns, and we are committed to continuing to work with neighbors and regulators,” said Greif spokeswoman Debbie Crow.
Some residents say the taller stack has made it worse. Because the plant sits at the bottom of two hills, the smoke now goes right in the bedroom windows of homes to the south.
For Bob Deck and his wife, Patricia, the plant has been a concern for years.
The couple, who have lived south of the facility for 32 years, both have nagging headaches and other ailments and they aren’t sure why. Bob Deck never thought it was the plant, figuring the government wouldn’t allow a company to pollute the air for years, but now he’s not sure.
“You just assumed it was safe,” he said. “They wouldn’t do it to us, the government wouldn’t let that happen.”
There is nothing on the outside of the Mid-America plant on S. Pennsylvania Ave. to indicate it is a barrel refurbishing business. The operation, which is just east of the airport, literally has no sign.
Leah Rodriguez did not know what the plant did. In January, she was hunting for her first house. The 28-year-old bought the side-by-side townhouse across from the building without realizing what the plant did.
“It’s like living right next to a chlorine pool some days,” Rodriguez said.
She bought an air filter for her home.
Trucks often rumble up and down two-lane Pennsylvania Ave. delivering steel barrels — ones that could contain any number of chemicals.
The drums are rolled onto a conveyor belt and go into a high-temperature furnace to burn off chemicals before being sandblasted, painted and sent back out.
Rodriguez thinks she misses the brunt of the smell by being at work. P.J. Early and Amy Szuta do not.
Early has a home-based business; Szuta home-schools her children.
Szuta and her husband rent a condominium located south and up the hill from the plant. In the two years they have lived there, she said, all of her family have had breathing-related health problems that are getting worse.
“Depending on the wind, it is just this burning Super Glue smell that just burns the back of your throat, your sinuses, your eyes. It’s a terrible feeling to live with,” she said.
Her family is moving after Jan. 1 because of the plant.
Early said changes are overdue.
“We want them to be compliant, but they have been repeatedly uncompliant, so if they need to be shut down, they need to be shut down,” she said.
Staff at Willow Glen Primary, to the south of the plant, have commented on the smells from the plant for years. In February, a secretary called the fire department to complain of a stench in the air, according to EPA records.
The firefighters reported a “strong odor” as they walked up to the school. They confirmed it was coming from the plant.
“We informed her about the plant and apologize for not being able to do anything about it,” the report said.
This fall, Facebook lit up with odor complaints from parents dropping their children off at school, which has about 250 students.
Kim Knaak, who lives near the school, said the odor was overwhelming a month ago when she dropped off her 6-year-old daughter.
“We literally had to hold our breath as we ran into the school,” Knaak said.
A month ago, the school board decided to do its testing which concluded last week, said Peuse, the superintendent. Results are expected in coming weeks.
The Howard Village assisted-living home is about a quarter mile to the north of the plant. The firm that did the testing for the Journal Sentinel detected a strong odor standing outside the facility when a south wind blew on Nov. 17. However, a representative of the company that owns the facility said there have been no odor complaints.
In mid-November, Early and Szuta launched a new Facebook group, Saint Francis Citizens: Mid America Status, which has drawn 325 members.
A group of residents also have been pressuring the city to act.
For several months after the Journal Sentinel investigation published in February, the answer they say they got was “that it is not a city issue.”
That may be changing.
Mayor CoryAnn St. Marie-Carls is now facing a recall, in part, because residents say she has not been responsive to complaints about the barrel recycling plant. Based on what she has heard from residents, St. Marie-Carls said she wants city staff to study what options the city has under its ordinance.
The St. Francis City Council meets Tuesday night and is scheduled to talk about the Mid-America plant. Aldermen have voted to include an update on the plant on all meeting agendas going forward.
City attorney Paul Alexy said he has not been asked to research the issue, but noted the city does have ordinances against nuisance odors and air pollution and also could turn to state statutes against nuisances.
“We are not constrained by the language of our ordinance,” Alexy said. “We have more arrows in our quiver if the city council sees fit to move in that direction.”
Kessel bought her 1800s-era home 13 years ago. Since then, the operations have gotten worse, she said.
Last month, Kress, Kessel and another resident filed a class-action lawsuit in Milwaukee County court that accuses the company of destroying their quality of life by making it difficult to enjoy their property.
The lawsuit does not address any health concerns.
“The ash, the smoke, it just seeps down into the neighborhood. It wasn’t like this when I originally bought my house,” Kessel said.
“I can’t have a pool. The trampoline is gone. I can’t take my grandchildren into the yard.”
Kessel’s daughter, Mary, lived with her at the house since she was 13. She’s 27 now.
“You can pretty much taste it,” Mary Kessel said in October. “It’s so bad you have to cover your mouth.”
Mary Kessel has a new concern: her 9-month-old son, Sariel. In his short life, he has developed unexplained health issues: persistent coughing and watery eyes.
“I want to find out what is coming out of there and what is happening to him and to me,” Mary Kessel said.
A month later she had had enough. She moved out. Her mother is heartbroken. And angry.
“Now that plant has taken my daughter and my grandson from me,” she said.
Raquel Rutledge of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This article was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. McGraw provided funding for air testing done by RHP Risk Management.