Westfield residents Shelly Brown and Sarah Gillim live near the Citizens Energy Group Wastewater Treatment Plant on 166th Street. They know firsthand that it sometimes produces unpleasant smells.
However, the women recently became concerned because the foul odors are increasing in strength and frequency. A recent inspection by the Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management found some issues with the plant that are fueling the problem.
Gillim said she lived on Little Creek Avenue northeast of the plant before it was built. About a year after construction, she began noticing the smells, which were sporadic and usually exacerbated by rain.
“It was terrible, just terrible,” Gillim said. “Hardly a day would go by (without the smell.) So, we started complaining a lot.”
Gillim said the odors are worse depending on the direction of the wind and have started impacting her quality of life.
“I don’t want to have anybody over to my house,” Gillim said. “I’m afraid as to when it will smell terrible. I am embarrassed it could stink, and that’s just going to make it miserable to be outside.”
Brown said because she lives in a rural area, she likes to keep her windows open at night when the weather is cooler.
“We like to turn off the air conditioner and leave the windows open,” Brown said. “The sewage smell is everywhere around the house. It’s coming in the windows.”
Gillim and several other residents, specifically in the Brent Creek neighborhood, reached out to Citizens Energy Group expressing concern. She said Citizens Energy blamed much of the smell on agricultural fields and livestock farms in the area. Citizens concluded a study in 2020 claiming it was not the source of the odors. Gillim, who was a biochemistry major and has a scientific background, doesn’t believe the study is accurate. She said the study, which shows a diagram of wind direction around the plant, is hard to read because of blurry font. She said the arrows used to represent wind direction in the study only show when it is coming in directions other than from the plant.
“It’s clearly designed, in my opinion, to misrepresent what’s going on or to protect them, to say they can’t be the cause without any evidence,” Gillim said.
Citizens Energy Group Communications Manager Dan Considine said the utility service has heard from “a small group of people” living in the area. He said the smells could be coming from nearby farms and not the treatment plant. However, he acknowledged there will always be “some odor” associated with a wastewater treatment plant.
“We investigated where odors in that area may be coming from, and because it’s very evident that while there’s been a focus on wastewater treatment plant, there very clearly are multiple sources of odors in that area near Westfield,” Considine said. “It’s a rural area of Westfield, so the sources we have been able to identify outside the treatment plant include agricultural and livestock operations.”
Considine said there is “considerable construction” in the area.
“Whenever houses are built, you’re digging up ground,” he said. “All the areas they are building on out there have been agricultural fields. So, when you start digging up former cornfields or soybean fields to build houses, there’s going to be odors out there.”
Considine said Citizens Energy Group’s monitoring indicates the plant’s odors often extend beyond the plant property. He said Citizens recently installed an additional carbon filter lift station that can help mitigate odors.
“We think we are doing everything we can,” he said. “People in that area need to recognize there clearly are other sources of odors in the area. There’s nothing Citizens can do about those.”
IDEM sent an inspector to the plant after it received 12 complaints from Westfield residents in less than a month. IDEM’s Office of Water Quality staff visited the Westfield plant July 13 to investigate the complaints.
The inspection noted there were potential problems at the plant.
“This reconnaissance inspection was conducted in response to several odor complaints in the area,” the inspection report stated. “Although operations were satisfactory, a noticeable odor was present due to high solids content in the thickened sludge digester. More frequent removal of sludge off-site is recommended.”
A statement from IDEM said because wastewater treatment facilities are responsible for treating raw wastewater, they can produce odors.
“There are no state or federal statutes and rules regarding odors,” the statement reads. “IDEM does, however, respond to odor complaints at facilities to ensure the odor is not caused by operational or maintenance issues that fall under clean water rules.”
Gillim and Brown said the odors haven’t been has pronounced since they first logged their complaints.
How a wastewater treatment plant works
Wastewater goes through five phases in the treatment process. When water is flushed down the toilet or drains down the sink, it flows into an underground collection system and then flows by gravity to a treatment facility.
The five phases are preliminary, primary, secondary, tertiary and disinfection. The phases remove debris from wastewater, dissolve compounds and nutrients, kill harmful nutrients, pumps the wastewater through more filters, disinfects the water and then returns it to the White River.
Wastewater spends almost 12 hours in the Citizens Energy Group treatment plant.
For more on the treatment process, visit facebook.com/CitizensEnergyGroup/videos/324004915742318.