What was that bad smell on I-70? We can tell you

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The proof was in the wind; something was rotten in a South Side industrial park.

If you’ve driven on Interstate 70 east of Downtown this spring, you know what I’m talking about.

There had been an inordinate amount of nose-scrunching going on in this part of town. In an area roughly bracketed by the Livingston Curve and the Route 33 exit to Lancaster, an odor slipped into cars and lodged in the nostrils of thousands of motorists.

My first morning whiff occurred several weeks ago. At first I thought I was smelling chemicals. I wondered if the state had applied some sort of weedkiller along the freeway, or if the city had sprayed for mosquitoes.

The smell was there for the evening commute, hanging in the air above the freeway. I still couldn’t place it, but it was definitely ripe.

It didn’t take many more commutes before I decided the source had to be something natural. Whatever it was smelled organic; it reminded me most of silage, the fermented and moist fodder for farm animals that has a unique odor.

As the saying goes, I had smelt it; it was high time to find out who had dealt it.

A neo-tropical bird belonging to the family Ramphastidae once advised that I should just follow my nose, because it always knows.

Well, Toucan Sam, so does Google, and I didn’t have to wander the South Side with my snoot in the air to find my answer.

“What is that smell on I-70 going over Alum Creek?!” was the heading for the thread someone had started on Reddit. “It’s like hot garbage and putrid death!”

“Maybe something died and got washed up and stuck under the creek bridge?” someone replied.

Turns out that hot garbage was a pretty good guess.

The source, another commenter wrote, was Innovative Organics Recycling at 2121 Integrity Drive South. You can see the business, with its mulch piles and bluish, garage-like building, just south of I-70.

I pulled up to the site Thursday. I’d noticed in recent days that the odor had dissipated on I-70, but you could still smell it here. I was greeted by a smiling employee named Ivy Distler.

“It’s our facility,” she confirmed.

Innovative Organics composts all sorts of food products, from table scraps to expired canned goods. They handle meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables from clients that include area universities, restaurants and grocery stores.

The business has been doing this at the Integrity Drive site for about two years without raising much of a stink, owner George Hunyadi said. The recent stench came from already rotten meat that arrived in some loads at the compost facility.

“Some weeks ago we got some contaminated loads in,” he said. “We thought we could manage them. That was just a bad move on my part.”

The business regularly composts meats, but in smaller quantities that are interspersed with other materials and break down without the overpowering smell of rot. The usual meat scraps that come in also tend to be fresher than the nastier loads that triggered the smell.

“We didn’t realize how bad it was,” Hunyadi said of the fouled shipments. “By the third load we realized, now we got a problem.”

The complaints peaked around Memorial Day, Hunyadi said. “We were actually mixing and blending over the holiday,” he said, which stirred up the stench.

“Somebody even called the cops the other day to report a dead body,” Distler said.

The business stopped composting the compromised loads, Hunyadi said, and the offending materials were separated and sent to the landfill. That’s why the odor has faded. The company consulted with the city health and state environmental officials as it figured out how to remedy the stink.

“Ohio EPA has received some odor complaints, but we do not believe the odors at the facility are a threat to human health or the environment,” Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman James Lee said.

There will always be some odor attached to composting of foods like table scraps, Distler said, but it can be suppressed by covering the piles with wood chips and wetting them down with orange juice.

“The microbes love the sugar,” she said. “It’s totally safe. It’s all just food.”

Given that she was not wearing a biohazard suit or breathing through a respirator or even using nose plugs, I was inclined to believe her.

Theodore Decker is a columnist for The Columbus Dispatch.

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