Ah, spring. A time to open windows and emerge from hibernation.
But in New Brighton, a strong, sweet smell wafting from the local utility pole yard is giving some residents headaches and forcing them back indoors.
The scent, described by many people as "blueberries," has traveled as far as Arden Hills and even Roseville.
Neighbors of the Bell Lumber & Pole Co. say they first noticed the strange odor a couple of months ago.
The smell is less intense now, but it's still there, irritating noses and eyes and raising concerns about possible health and environmental risks.
Three state agencies -- the Minnesota Department of Health, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture -- are now involved. State health officials say the odor doesn't pose a public health threat, based on information that they've received from the company and New Brighton officials about the chemical source of the smell.
Bell Lumber & Pole, maker of utility poles used throughout the country, has been in New Brighton since 1919. It treats the wooden poles with a mix of chemicals to make them last longer.
The odor problem started after the company received the wrong chemical solution from its supplier, KMG Bernuth Inc., company officials told New Brighton city leaders at last week's City Council work session.
Rick Bleskey, operations coordinator for Bell Lumber & Pole, said the company ordered a new version of DuraTreat 40, and instead received a solution that was significantly different from the samples it had tested earlier for odor level. In particular, the shipment contained notable concentrations of two chemicals that smell strong but aren't toxic, according to a chemical analysis and odor test ordered by the company. The company did not test the shipment itself before adding it to its tanks.
"Shame on us for not testing it. It will be part of our protocol in the future," Bleskey said. "This is the first time it happened to us, so it blindsided us as well. We weren't trying to sneak anything by anybody."
Company mitigation efforts
In the weeks since, Bell Lumber & Pole has been frantically working to dilute the solution.
The company chose not to purge the tanks completely to get rid of the smelly chemicals because it would be very expensive and impractical, Bleskey said. The shipment was 7,500 gallons and the company's tanks hold about 90,000 gallons. Warmer weather may be making the problem worse, with stacks of treated poles baking in the sun and emitting vapors.
In an effort to remedy the problem, Bleskey said the company moved a lot of treated poles off site last week and is working on a written protocol to verify what is put into its tanks.
It's not the first time the company has had odor issues.
In 2006, New Brighton city officials received complaints from neighbors about a pungent smell from the plant. Grant Fernelius, New Brighton's community development director, said the city discovered then that the company was using DuraTreat 40, which caused the smell.
At the time, Bell Lumber & Pole wanted to expand its plant and voluntarily entered into two agreements with the city. The first was to get another treatment tank up and running to mitigate the odor, and the second agreement was to set up a testing procedure for measuring the odor level once that plant was established.
Since then, city officials hadn't received any smell-related complaints -- until this year.
Fernelius said that in the past couple of months, the city has received 25 complaints from residents, which he called a significant amount.
The process that Bell Lumber & Pole uses to treat the wood involves several chemicals, Fernelius said. Pentachlorophenol, or "penta," is the main ingredient. Diesel fuel and DuraTreat 40 are also used.
Neighbors annoyed, worried
David Burkum has lived in Arden Hills for five years and says he had never thought to complain about the smells coming from the pole yard.
"Once in awhile I'd get a little whiff of a railroad tie-type smell. Big deal," he said. "This year, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, what the heck is happening?'" Burkum said. He's concerned that the smell is ruining his quality of life and about exposure to the chemicals causing the smell.
"I have a lot of older people in my neighborhood," he said. "The school is very nearby. My grandkids go to a school in New Brighton that's probably a mile away. I'm sure every kid on the playground is inhaling that."
Rob Mangels is one of several people who live along 14th Avenue, where neighbors say they must close their windows and go inside because of the smell. He said that at times it has given him an instant headache and caused his eyes to burn.
"There are times when the kids come back inside and say, "Ooh, what's that smell?'" Mangels said. "You think, 'What is this doing to me? What are the ill effects?' On top of that, it's not enjoyable to do anything."
He said he hopes that the city leaders don't have tunnel vision and focus only on getting rid of the smell. "My feeling is, if it's irritating us, they [the chemicals] have the potential to be dangerous."
In particular, he's worried about pentachloraphenol. He says company officials have assured him that their filters block the release of any "penta" emissions.
He added: "I'm encouraged that Bell Pole is willing to do something about it."
Dick and Helen Bertholf are not encouraged. The couple, who moved into their townhouse near the pole yard in 2005, say the smell problem is their latest issue with their industrial neighbor. They say they also can hear noises from the yard late at night caused by workers moving poles around.
When the odor is at its worst, Helen Bertholf says, you don't want to be outside and you don't want your windows open.
"If the market wasn't so bad, I'd seriously consider moving," she said.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488