Aotearoa is actually a really stinky place – from sewage stinks to smells of offal, sulphurous secretions and rotten milk filth. So what happens to communities when a rotten pong doesn’t go away? Chris Hyde reports.
The lack of sleep hits it hardest. In daylight, the smell of the fire-damaged sewage treatment plant is not necessarily tolerable, but avoidable.
But at night it seeps under the covers. The resilient Christchurch suburb of Bromley, rocked by earthquakes, is reeling again for a new reason.
The smell isn’t just in her nostrils, it’s in her mind, a subconscious voice begging her to stop lying down. Stand up. Go away. fly you fool
* “An absolute insult”: Residents struggling with foul stench from sewer systems say $200 isn’t enough
* Bromley residents live with the double stink bomb of Christchurch’s garbage
* $10 million contract to remove rotting material from treatment plant
* Environment Canterbury refuses to grant consent violation over sewage stench
Paul Corballis, a professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, describes the smell as a “gatekeeper sense”. It serves one main purpose – to keep us away from harmful and toxic things.
“A bad smell is a signal to the nervous system to stay clear,” says Corballis.
“If you have a constant negative odor that activates this type of avoidance response forever, it’s almost certainly a stressor and will trigger a stress response.”
Drone footage of the fire damage at Bromley Wastewater Treatment Plant in Christchurch. Two trickling filters were damaged by the fire.
That’s what Bromley resident Vickie Walker endured night after night, a month-long barrage on her senses.
“That’s why I was so exhausted…often. Before that I had a lot of energy – my husband and I are entrepreneurs so we have to.
“But now my brain is just foggy and I can’t concentrate. When we’ve had earthquakes on a regular basis, we’d all wake up with this fearful feeling of flying, and that’s what happens when I’m woken up in the middle of the night by the stench.”
Bromley isn’t the first place to experience a longstanding stink, but it could be a test case for how New Zealand responds to similar pongs in the future.
Last week Christchurch City Council voted to give 3,300 area residents $200 for their problems.
Reaction to this was mixed, with some, including Walker, feeling it didn’t go far enough. She would have preferred the council to buy everyone an air purifier — hers cost her $295.
Damian Elley says living under the stench of the Bromley sewage treatment plant is like having something pretty nasty on toast in the morning, in your sandwiches at lunchtime, and a similarly disgusting concoction at night.
But it’s almost unheard of for affected residents to be compensated for an odor.
In general, deterring a fine against a company, or in some cases a council, has historically been seen as a way forward.
And even the law enforcement that leads to those fines can be challenging because smell is such a subjective thing.
The smell detectives
To make their assessments more likely to be accurate, municipalities send compliance officers and other staff to have their noses ‘calibrated’ at Watercare Laboratory Services in Auckland.
Hawke’s Bay Regional Council compliance manager Rob Hogan said his teams used the nose calibrations, which are done by sampling different smells, to determine how sensitive each of their noses was.
Then, when an odor complaint is received, the municipality attempts to send two staff members with calibrated noses, ideally with known different sensitivity levels, to assess the odor.
Hogan says a 10-minute smell test is repeated in different areas around the smell to make sure they’re sure where it’s coming from. It can be particularly tricky when it’s windy.
Bromley’s Vickie Walker is fed up with the smell from the sewage treatment plant.
“We first go to the informant’s address and talk to him, and if the team can detect an odor, they start the odor measurement. Every 10 seconds they sniff and just write down the intensity.”
Our biggest stinkers
As the Environment Department’s Good Practice Guide notes, sometimes the biggest mess is the response of the polluters.
When a factory is good for a city and communicates well with it, sometimes the city is willing to look or smell the other way, the ministry notes.
Based on the size of the fines alone, one could argue that Waharoa’s protein plant pong ($460,000 in reparations over 11 years) was the country’s worst example of a persistent odor.
Then there’s Tuakau — another protein crop town in Waikato — which described its multi-month odor in the most creative and disgusting way in 2020: “like death mixed with a septic tank.”
The company eventually received a $180,000 fine.
The dairy we rely on can be obnoxious, too — remember Eltham in 2013?
South Taranaki County Council gave Fonterra the green light to landfill 3 million liters of buttermilk by-product and also milk contaminated with waste oil at the Eltham Wastewater Treatment Plant in 2013.
As it rotted, the odor plagued the community, and the council was eventually fined $115,000 for its part.
It’s important to remember that some of our most notorious smells are also completely natural.
Type “Rotorua smell” into Google and you’ll get thousands of travel blogs from overseas visitors, all linguistic variations on the same idea – that Rotorua stinks, but it’s still cool.
The great thing about the inland Bay of Plenty’s sulphurous perfume is that not only is it natural, but studies have shown that it’s also harmless.
It also doesn’t often get mentioned in the local media because after a day or two nobody really cares.
Rotorua: Beautiful and smelly.
Is it easy to get used to bad smells?
Corballis says that like Rotorua, Bromley residents will get used to the surrounding smell somewhat, though never quite.
“Sensory systems are more about detecting changes in the environment than protecting the environment. So in the case of smell, if there’s a constant chemical in the air, you’ll adapt to it.
“Intuitively you kind of know this is going to happen, but when someone is cooking in the kitchen and someone else comes into the house, they often say, ‘Oh, that smells great in here,’ and the cook doesn’t necessarily notice. “
But as Corballis says, there’s no odor adaptation that can stop you from smelling a familiar bad smell once you’ve breathed fresh air and then come back there.
Bromley residents have complained that even when the smell goes away, it lingers on their furniture and clothing.
Corballis says some of it will be chemical, but a lot of it will be psychological — even after bad smells are gone, they can stick in your memory, just like you remember how your grandmother’s cookies smelled when they were baking.
“One of the things we know about all sensory things is the environment around you, your construction of it based on interacting with a set of stimuli.
“And sometimes you see, hear or smell things that aren’t there.”
Christchurch was built on wetlands and it smelled before the settlers arrived.
Clean air nirvana – or stinking swamp?
One of Aotearoa’s great draws in advertisements to colonial settlers in the 18th century was as a nirvana for clean air, the antithesis of industrial England.
But the reality was different, because our natural world has always been a smelly place.
The Waikato and Christchurch estuaries were treated with contempt by settlers for a variety of reasons, but one of them was because their odor was so pungent.
In an article entitled “Historical Smellscapes in Aotearoa New Zealand: Intersections between Colonial Knowledges of Smell, Race, and Wetlands,” Dr. Meg Parsons and Dr. Karen Fisher of the University of Auckland captured the terror that smells and water vapor rising from estuaries invoked in miasma-fearing European settlers.
In 1875, Napier (population 3,000) experienced an outbreak of “fever” (mislabeled as malaria) which officials attributed to “noxious emanations from the swamp” adjacent to the town.
The “tepid swamps,” it was said, poisoned the “otherwise pure air” and brought “hundreds to an early grave.”
The deaths of 140 people in Napier were linked to the fever epidemic of 1875, and later that year Parliament introduced the first legislation expressly authorizing wetland drainage.
Many of our wetland landscapes have been filled in for farmland or homes.
The Napier Swamp Nuisance Act allowed local government officials to fill in any property deemed a muddy, watery, fetid “nuisance” without landowner consent, the paper said, noting the act helped reduce the Shaping destruction of wetlands across the country.
Bromley, and indeed much of Christchurch, was built on one of these later destroyed marshes.
Walker agrees that it’s ironic that nearly 200 years of development and a bit of bad luck simply concentrated the smell in her bedroom instead of removing it.
“I thought that was my retirement. I have a wonderful community of people around me here. But then this sewage fire happened, and now I don’t even know what to make of it.
“I was given a good sense of smell for a reason, but it wasn’t.”