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Economy & Business

Missouri DNR Investigates Odors Coming From GM's Wentzville Plant, Elsewhere

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File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
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St. Louis Public Radio
A worker assembles automotive parts at the Wentzville General Motors plant, which is the source of a chemical smell reported by some residents. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources says the company has not violated any odor regulations.

For weeks, Wentzville Mayor Nick Guccione has been walking around town trying to get to the bottom of pungent odors reported to him by more than 100 residents in the area.

“I figured at first it was a dead deer or something,” he said, but none appeared in the ditches he searched, so he called in the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

The department is investigating complaints of “moldy/musty/chemical odors” in the area southeast of the General Motors plant and other parts of the region.

Caroline Kargus is an environmental program analyst with the department who specializes in air pollution inspections. She’s fielded more than 80 calls about the odors since Oct. 15, when she began investigating the issue.

She’s identified at least two different odors — a chemical smell and another that has been described as a mildew or musty smell.

Using the calls as leads, Kargus has so far spent six days driving around the Wentzville region smelling the air and using a nasal ranger tool to see whether the odors rise to a violation level. She said the department is currently focused on compliance and is not measuring whether or not the air is healthy.

“It’s hard to know if everyone is talking about the same chemical smell, but the one I have witnessed myself — there is a chemical smell coming from the GM plant,” she said.

So far, Kargus said it has not registered as an odor violation. She said the company has been cooperative in voluntarily tracking down the smell, though it also has not identified the source.

In response to questions via email, Diana Forbes, a spokesperson for the GM facility, said the plant is in full compliance with current air emission permits.

“We have verified that the plant has made no process changes during the past year. We continue to investigate the issue including sending samples from various paint processes to an outside expert for analysis,” she said, adding that the company plans to share the results with city and DNR officials.

The company is also contracting with an external environmental firm to deep clean its paint sludge systems — which could be the source of the odor. Forbes said the company is expediting that process and aims to complete it by the end of the year.

The mysterious musty smell

The reported musty or mildew-like smell appears to be more widespread and harder to trace, Kargus said.

Residents in Lake St. Louis, O’Fallon, Moscow Mills and other surrounding towns have reported smelling the odor to Kargus or on Mayor Guccione’s Facebook page. Some commented the smell is unpleasant, like a wet basement, but not unbearable. Others said they believe it’s caused them sinus headaches.

“I can certainly understand their concerns since we do not know what it is and until we do know what it is, it’s hard to say if it should be concerning,” Kargus said. “I personally have been taking in very deep breaths of it, and I’ve been OK, but I know there are people that have some preexisting conditions and it can be more irritating to them.”

Kargus said she visited the city’s wastewater treatment plant and ruled that out as the source of the odor. She said there are many companies in the area that could be causing the smell.

The mayor said he’s doing everything he can to get to the bottom of it.

“I don’t want it to be an irritant, if it’s going to irritate somebody’s respiratory — we got enough issues with COVID that that could be a concern for health. My job is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community so I’m very concerned,” Guccione said.

To report information about odors in the area call 314-416-2960 or submit information online here.

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