SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. — After fleeing noxious sewer gases in his home and living out of a motel room for nearly 12 weeks, Mike Klassen is at the end of his rope.
The city has installed valves and built a new sewer line around Klassen’s suburban neighborhood to divert dangerous hydrogen sulfide gases from sewer mains in the area.
Cleaning crews have been sent to remove odors from furniture, carpeting and clothing, and displaced families continue to get reimbursement for lodging and living expenses.
There have been numerous tests by the city and its wastewater contractor, Big Ox Energy, that generally show the seepage of sewer gases into homes has stopped.
But Klassen and his wife and at least 10 other families still don’t feel safe returning to the homes they left in October. They wonder why there’s still a funny smell.
“What’s in there that makes my eyes burn? What gives me a headache after an hour?” Klassen asked. “Why has this gone on and on?”
What began as a project by the City of South Sioux City to reduce sewer expenses for some major industries and produce valuable methane gas has turned into a long-running nightmare for a group of residents.
In October, more than two dozen families fled their homes due to noxious odors. The odors were traced to hydrogen sulfide flowing down sewer pipes from a wastewater treatment facility, run by Big Ox Energy, that went online this past fall. The sewer pipes ran through a neighborhood on the southeastern edge of South Sioux City, where Klassen’s $250,000 home is located.
The $30 million Big Ox project was touted as an environmentally friendly way to reduce sewer bills by $75,000 a month for local industries. Not only would it reduce waste treatment costs, it would produce methane gas that could be resold as energy.
Officials with the city and Wisconsin-based Big Ox, in an interview last week, said that the odor issue was unanticipated and unfortunate, but they remain convinced that the innovative project will be a long-range winner for the community.
They said they’ve responded as quickly as possible to the odor problems and feel confident that the flow of the noxious gases has been stopped and only cleanup work remains. More than $300,000 has been paid by Big Ox for expenses of the displaced families; the number of families displaced had dropped to 11 as of last week.
“We’re still trying to find out what caused those residual smells,” said Tina Mowry Hadden, a spokeswoman for the city. “I know it’s not fast enough for the residents, but everyone has been moving as fast as they can to find answers.”
Toward that end, the city will begin a new round of testing this week. Past tests had focused only on hydrogen sulfide, an extremely hazardous and flammable gas that causes irritation of the eyes, nose and throat and can corrode metal.
The new tests will focus on 22 other sulfur compounds in an attempt to discover what else residents might be smelling, and how to mitigate it.
“Hopefully this new round of testing will get some results, and we can get these people back into their homes,” said Aaron Iacino, a consultant hired by the city to test air quality in the affected homes.
Klassen said Friday he was encouraged that city officials had finally accepted residents’ pleas for additional testing, but he still wonders if that will be enough.
One of Nebraska’s top trial attorneys, David Domina, is scheduled to meet with affected homeowners tonight to discuss possible litigation.
Inspectors from the federal Environmental Protection Agency visited the community last week because of the controversy, but at least preliminarily said they found no problems with hydrogen sulfide in the air.
South Sioux City has had issues with odors in the past, but those problems were related to a huge meatpacking plant now run by Tyson Foods, and they were resolved years ago. The new problem relates to gas — which has the smell of rotten eggs — that seeps into homes from sewage pipes, not from outside air.
It’s been almost daily fodder for local media and prompted some homeowners to picket an appearance by Gov. Pete Ricketts in South Sioux City on Friday.
One displaced resident, Robert Baker Sr., 74, died after tripping and falling in a motel room after being moved out of his condominium. Family members say they believe he would be alive today had he not been impacted by the odor circumstances.
It’s been a long-running dose of bad publicity for a town deemed an All-American City in 2003. In recent years South Sioux City has regularly pumped out success stories in attracting new businesses and is known for its energy innovations, such as the use of electric cars and the opening of a solar energy farm. It also has plans to turn diseased ash trees into fuel.
The architect of those innovations, Lance Hedquist, is the veteran city administrator for South Sioux City. Hedquist dismissed the idea that this latest innovation wasn’t well thought out. Obviously, he said, if the city had known that odor problems would arise, it would have sought to avoid them.
“It was definitely not nice,” Hedquist said of the smell.
He and other officials outlined a number of steps taken by the city and Big Ox Energy since the problem surfaced in late October.
» The flow of wastewater from Big Ox through the neighborhood where Klassen lives was shut off on Nov. 1.
» Tests were conducted on plumbing systems in homes to discover whether sewage gases were leaking due to problems such as deteriorated wax rings on toilets, dry P-traps on sinks or other problems. Of 34 homes tested, 24 had faulty plumbing, according to Big Ox, indicating that faulty plumbing was a contributor.
» During late November and early December, two companies tested 39 homes for hydrogen sulfide, obtaining both snapshot tests and readings after 30 hours. All of the readings were below 7.17 parts per billion, a benchmark for safety set by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
» The city built a new, separate sewer line from Big Ox to bypass the neighborhood. It went into service on Dec. 13. Officials said the job, which normally takes six months, was completed in six weeks.
» A company, Servicemaster, was hired to clean odors from furniture, clothing and other household goods. In one home, drywall was removed in an attempt to remove the odors. A large shipping container, like what you’d find on the back of a semitrailer, now sits in the street in front of that home.
» Alarms to detect hydrogen sulfide were left in the home affected by the odors. None have gone off since Jan. 2. The handful of alarms prior to that, officials said, were likely caused by residual gases being stirred up.
Mowry Hadden, the city spokeswoman, said that before any other work could be done, the sewer line had to be diverted to ensure that new gases weren’t coming into the residential area. Now, she said, officials can focus on cleaning up and determining whether there are additional problems.
Kevin Bradley of Big Ox Energy said the company has reimbursed “reasonable” housing and living expenses of residents to be a good neighbor, though he could not say how long the reimbursements will continue.
Officials also could not say when they expect the remaining homeowners to be able to return to their homes.
Klassen and another resident — Rob Baker, son of the man who died after falling — both said they questioned the accuracy of the plumbing tests. They also said it may be too late to save their residences.
Odors from the hydrogen sulfide gas persist, they said, and copper water lines have turned black from corrosion. They wonder who would buy their homes after learning of the problems.
“I’ve lost my father, and we’ve lost our lives for the past three months,” Baker said.
The two men wonder what is still irritating their eyes and noses and causing headaches.
“If they can’t tell us what’s in our homes, they ought to just buy us out,” Klassen said.
He said he has undergone counseling because of the stress. “It’s hard to focus on anything else.”