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Woburn gets action on odors

After study, Kraft Foods making changes at plant

By Brad Kane
Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2009
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Residents finally got some answers this month from Kraft Foods Woburn as well as a plan for dealing with the foul odors that they have complained about for years coming from the company's plant in western Woburn.

On March 12, Kraft Foods and the consultant it hired to investigate the odor - Woburn-based GEI Consultants - presented their study of the smell, what they believe causes it, and the measures being taken to make the air less pungent.

"It is very, very bad, especially in the summer when you are sitting outside," said Elizabeth Saccoccio, a resident of nearby Utica Street.

The GEI Consultants study says foul odors come from the grease and fat traps at the plant, flavorings such as butter, bacon, and cherry, and aromas of meat and broth associated with gelatin production.

To cut down on the smell, Kraft says it is putting special odor-killing chemicals into its fat and grease traps and it has overhauled the exhaust system in the flavorings department, replaced carbon filters in that exhaust system that will be tested monthly, and will try to use better practices in its gelatin production to reduce odor emissions.

Citizen complaints of the smell were first reported in the summer of 2006, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection cited Kraft on Sept. 7, 2006, for producing a nuisance odor, which required the company to come up with a remedy.

The problem persisted, especially in the spring and summer in the areas of Utica, Central, and Washington streets, said Darlene Mercer-Bruen, Woburn alderman for the neighborhood. The smell has been described as resembling dirty diapers, rotting food, garbage, and animal hides.

The issue came to a head in August when the Woburn City Council held a hearing with several residents and the company to detail the complaints and try to get something done. The immediate result of that meeting was the formation of the city's Kraft Foods Ad Hoc Committee, headed by Mercer-Bruen, to assert the city's and the residents' power over the problem.

Also following the August hearing, Kraft retained GEI to study the smell. From September to December, GEI investigated possible odor sources at the plant and surveyed people inside and outside the plant about the smell.

According to GEI, the consultant investigated the odor out in the community 16 times and did not let Kraft know when and where the investigations were being conducted.

Mercer-Bruen said the ad hoc committee was pleased the company finally acknowledged that the smells exist and was working to remedy the situation.

Mercer-Bruen, who was a Kraft skeptic before the study was released this month, said the company has been "extremely cooperative."

"They really want to do the right thing for the community, and I appreciate that," she said.

As most reports of the smell come in the spring and summer, Kraft says it is retaining GEI to continue the odor investigation in the coming months and will report those findings to the city ad hoc committee in June or July.

Whenever residents in the area smell something foul, Kraft is encouraging them to call in a complaint to its hotline - 781-938-2231 - so GEI can be more responsive and further detail the types of odors being produced.

"Unless people call that number, we don't know what kind of smell is occurring where," said Adrienne Dimopoulos, spokeswoman for Kraft corporate affairs.

Kraft Foods Woburn plant manager Dennis Gordon said the GEI studies give the company quantifiable data on the smell, so it's easier to decipher the exact source of the problem.

Also, with remedies like putting chemicals into the grease traps, Kraft can tell whether its odor-eliminating measures are working.

"It has certainly been our goal to eliminate all odors into the community. We remain committed," Gordon said.

The city will send letters to residents in the area of the Hill Street plant and people who frequent the area, such as parents of the students at nearby Goodyear Elementary School. Mercer-Bruen said with all these people reporting the odor, Kraft should get a better idea of the size and scope of the problem.

The Atlantic Gelatin plant on Hill Street was founded in 1919 and currently employs 225 people. Since the 1960s, the plant has processed flavorings for foods such as Cool Whip, Fruity Pebbles cereal, Stove Top stuffing, Kool-Aid, and Altoids mints. The plant also makes gelatins used in foods, pharmaceuticals, and photographs.

Brad Kane can be reached at brad.j.kane@gmail.com.

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