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Utah County will likely smell like mothballs for the next 6 months, but is it dangerous?

Posted at 7:53 PM, Dec 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-22 00:02:40-05

UTAH COUNTY — Officials with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality say a strange smell that has been plaguing Utah County since early November will likely continue for the next six months.

The smell is coming from coal tar pits at the old Geneva Steel plant in Vineyard. The United States Steel Corporation has been tasked with cleaning up the site as UDEQ oversees the operation.

While most people just notice a very unpleasant smell, some reported experiencing headaches or nausea from the smell of naphthalene. The symptoms are commonly associated with exposure to the chemical.

Naphthalene is typically known for being an ingredient in mothballs.

Keith Kuder, who lives in Vineyard, said the smell has been giving him migraines.

"That smell is toxic. Naphthalene? If you Google that, it's not safe to breathe that in!" Kuder said. "The inversion is actually making it worse."

"I did wake up with a stomach ache, a really bad stomach ache," said Misty Decker, who lives in the area. "It's gone now, but I am a little concerned that it's something that they've known about that's maybe making us sick."

Donna Kemp Spangler, the communications director for UDEQ, said the department is treating the case as a "nuisance" rather than a health hazard at this time because the amount of naphthalene measured is not concentrated enough to reach the workplace exposure limit of 10 parts per million (ppm).

"The work is going to continue for six months," Spangler said. "It's possible that residents are going to continue to smell it."

"A nuisance? You've got to be kidding me. This is a complete hazard. It's hazardous waste!" Kuder said. "The only nuisance they're getting are the phone calls we're making when we're complaining about our illnesses and the children that are having illnesses."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), naphthalene is a possible carcinogen, which means "there may be no safe level of exposure."

Work on the coal tar pits has been temporarily stopped since Thanksgiving as U.S. Steel comes up with a plan outlining steps it will take to limit the smell's impact on surrounding communities.

"One of the possibilities is they're going to work at night when people are typically in bed," Spangler said.

U.S. Steel has partnered with ENTACT, an environmental remediation company performing work on the site.

A spokesperson for ENTACT based in Pittsburgh did not return FOX 13's request for comment.

"I'm sure that person in Pittsburgh is not breathing the air that we're breathing right now," Kuder said. "They need to do something. There should be a better process... If there are more than 50-100 people having a headache on the same day around the same time? There's something wrong here. It's air pollution."

UDEQ recommended anyone who continues to experience headaches or nausea to contact their doctor and report the smell to the UDEQ spill hotline at (801) 536-4123. The department believes there may be multiple sources of odors in the area.

"We can't make any correlation exactly what is causing their illness," Spangler said. "I mean, is it from a particular facility? Is it from a different facility? Is it from, maybe, being sick? We don't know."

"They want us to pay for our own healthcare costs while they're polluting our air and causing this to happen?" Kuder asked. "It doesn't make sense. There's no common sense in this whole process."