Mother Nature to blame for CR Stink this week

The unfortunately nicknamed "City of Five Smells" suffered a nasty one, Wednesday night. Residents found themselves either going to bed or waking up to something foul scorching their nostrils.

An image of wastewater being treated at the Cedar Rapids Water Pollution Control Facility. (KCRG)

"All I know is I woke up this morning and let the dog out-- it was just a horrible smell," said Lydia Christoffersen, who lives in Cedar Rapids. "My daughter came in and said, 'Mom, it stinks outside. It stinks outside.'"

Oh boy, did it. Complaints came from all over, not just the city proper. People in Palo to Iowa City were sulking in a sickly smelling stench that some described as brimstone, rotten eggs or, well, you know...

"I don't know if I can say it on camera," said Justin Widdel, who got a whiff in the northeast part of Cedar Rapids. "Yeah, uh, you know, waste."

Rumors of the stink's source spread like wildfire. Some felt its origins came from outside state lines.

"I heard somebody say it had to do with the fires in California," said Christoffersen. "Like, blowing smoke in."

In reality, it was likely local-- the Cedar Rapids Water Pollution Control Facility. The large campus on Bertram Road SE treats near 50 million gallons of wastewater from toilets and factories in the area each day. In doing so, it generates a byproduct, stinky hydrogen sulfide.

"Wastewater breaks down into different components and releases the hydrogen sulfide component," said Roy Hesemann, the plant manager.

Hesemann thinks an atmospheric condition called inversion is why the hydrogen sulfide scent was so noticeable, Wednesday evening. It happens when warm air gets higher in the atmosphere and traps cold air below, as well as whatever smells might be in that cold air. Basically, Cedar Rapids was stuck inside a funk bubble.

There were some initial reports that a malfunction at the plant caused the stink. While Hesemann agreed a minor issue had happened over the weekend, he dismissed it as the source of the smell saying plant redundancies ensured it wasn't a problem.

Hesemann thinks the stench could have been worse if it wasn't for the about $7 million the city had invested in smell mitigation over the last three years. The money helped with restoration work at the treatment facility and bought a few towers that essentially suck up smelly air, treat it with microorganisms and then release it.

"We'll never eliminate all the odors from this facility, or those like it," said Hesemann. "We can mitigate it, reduce it-- be good neighbors."

Hesemann's team will keep at it. Meanwhile, the rest of Cedar Rapids hopes one of the city's other four scents will waft this way soon.

"Bring back the Crunch Berry days," said Christoffersen.

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