The Stinkiest City In The Pacific Northwest

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, September 17, 2015
Mount_Rainier_overlooking_the_Port_of_Tacoma
“I recognized your foul stench when I was brought onboard.” —Princess Leia, “Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977)

In A Nutshell

For decades, it was known as the Aroma of Tacoma, a rotten egg smell that was the worst when the winds stopped and the tides were out, exposing the tideflats of Commencement Bay. Those tideflats weren’t so much sediment and dirt as they were decades of industrial waste, leaving ocean life deformed and mutated and visitors—including Bruce Springsteen—taking the first opportunity they could to get out of town. The entire area was declared a Superfund site and one of the most polluted in the country, helping to raise awareness of the consequences of our unchecked industrial growth.

The Whole Bushel

There are a lot of cities that have their own sort of ambiance. London has long been famous for its fog (for better or worse), New York City for its smog, and Paris for its snark. Tacoma, Washington, is famous for something that, on some days, is almost tangible: a smell that has its own name, one that would make any Parisian proud.

In 1988, the mayor of the city informed the New York Times that the so-called “Aroma of Tacoma” wasn’t “a stink or a stench,” it was simply a sort of vaguely unpleasant odor that settled over the city from time to time. He claimed that it didn’t bother the people who lived there (all 158,000 of them) at all, and there were days that it wasn’t even noticeable.

On other days, though, it was described as the sulfuric stench of three-day-old eggs that are slowly and most assuredly going bad. Visitors have a tough time with it, and the smell even forced Bruce Springsteen to skip town early after it made him sick. A source of indignation for a mayor who’s proud of his city, which no doubt has many other fine qualities, the smell is more than just a smell. It’s proof of the brutal environmental impacts that have been quite literally dumped on Tacoma and Commencement Bay.

Commencement Bay should be a picturesque waterfront location, joining up with the Puyallup River and looking over Mount Rainier. But it’s also been a hotbed of so many industrial and chemical corporations that it was called one of the most polluted bodies of water in the entire country. Filled with mutated ocean life and sediment of an unnatural color, the stink was noticeably worse when the tides were out and the wind died down, letting the rotten egg smell suffocate the city.

The smell was so bad that it was putting a serious crush on tourism and the economy.

There’s an almost mind-numbing number of people that were to blame for the condition of Tacoma’s waterways, from the Simpson Tacoma Kraft pulp and paper mill (which pumped tons of sulfur and other contaminants into the air), to animal rendering plants, open sewer containment units, aluminum smelters, and chemical factories. All that gunk became trapped in the natural basin Tacoma sat in, and for decades, locals referred to it as the Aroma of Tacoma.

The smell has improved, but it’s no small effort. Industrial plants spent millions in upgrading their facilities, but that’s only lessening future damage. A lot of the smell comes from the tideflats—wet, contaminated soil that’s exposed when the tide goes out. Getting rid of all the contaminated soil means tens of thousands of dump trucks, filled to capacity.

The entire area from Commencement Bay’s shore and tideflats to the inland channels was finally declared a Superfund site. Cleanup began in 1986 and took almost 10 years to complete, and even though construction has officially ended, the Environmental Protection Agency still lists the sites as continuing to need attention when it comes to controlling groundwater contamination.

Tacoma certainly wasn’t alone when it came to its less-than-flattering national image, though, and it did help to raise the profile of environmental problems created by the country’s industry and how those problems spread to everything from impacting tourism to house prices.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Broran28
NY Times: Tacoma Journal; On Good Days, the Smell Can Hardly Be Noticed
Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Sites: South Tacoma Channel, Near Shore / Tideflats
LA Times: Residents aim to sweeten the aroma of Tacoma
The Aroma of Tacoma: Time-Varying Average Derivatives and the Effect of a Superfund Site on House Prices