Eric Westcott is the manager of Central Rental and Supply, a construction equipment company that sits about three miles from Premium Protein Products, a meat rendering plant that turns animal carcasses into pet food.
“Imagine the most disgusting smell you’ve ever smelled in your life and then add the heat, and that’s what we deal with here in Russellville,” he said.
In the summer, the smell of decomposing flesh wafts into his shop and gives his workers headaches. So they close the door: that raises the high temperatures another 15 degrees.
Mayor Randall Horton says summer is when the smell is particularly bad.
“If you open a very fresh bag of pet food and stick your face really close to the opening, that very heavy smell, take that times 50 and imagine what it would be like warm,” he said.
So the mayor and the store manager, who is also a city council member, were part of an effort that led to an odor ordinance adopted in 2015.
But then the rendering plant, Premium Protein Products, successfully sued to block it. Recently, the ordinance was wiped from the books.
Their argument? Arkansas law says odor is regulated by the state, and cities can’t make their own rules that exceed or impede the state's regulatory powers.
According to Stuart Spencer, Associate Director for the Office of Air Quality at the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, his agency is technically responsible for overseeing odor, but it has no specific regulations on the books against it.
“Of the many provisions that we have there are two general references to odor, but there are no specific requirements as to how to control it,” he said.
“It becomes difficult if an inspector goes to the facility and they determine that all the conditions in that permit are being met. That they’re running at the appropriate rate, that they’re capturing whatever emissions are supposed to be captured, that they are keeping appropriate records.”
That means that a plant can get a permit to operate if it follows rules like properly storing carcasses, using fans, and meeting emission standards for toxic contaminants.
According to Stuart, Russellville’s plant is safe, so there’s not any explicit rule to stop the stink. Besides which, a bad smell is subjective, and there is no way to measure it.
“There is science out there that we all smell it differently," he says, and besides — "the odor may have dissipated by the time an inspector shows up."
For Horton, the city’s now defunct ordinance relied on a device called a field olfactometer made by Nasal Ranger. He says city staffers got trained to use the device.
“Their noses got certified."
The device resembles a hair dryer, with a fan intake on one end and a nose cap on the other.
"It sounds crazy, but if you get to court you’ve got to be able to prove in a logical and statistical fashion why the odor was higher than normal,” he said.
Stuart says the department wouldn’t rule out using something like an olfactometer. But for now, there’s no plan to tackle the odors coming from the plant.
For Horton, the stench, which comes and goes over the town, makes it harder to entice new business investors to Russellville.
“They’ve done the tour, like the site, and they say, ‘What’s that smell?’ Then you never hear from them again,” he said.
Westcott, the store manager, says life in Russellville will go on, but he feels for people who live nearest the plant.
Premium Protein Products declined to comment for this story. It has upgraded its equipment to better fight the odors this year. Horton says that investment may have made a difference, but it's too early to tell.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.