Sunday, February 1, 2009

Another Endangered Smellscape: Franklin, VA

Since the 1930s, the paper mill in the small town of Franklin, VA has been one of those olfactory beacons on the American smellscape that people find disagreeable until they remind themselves, in a phrase echoed across the land, that the local stink is also “the smell of money.”

According to reporter Joanne Kimberlin of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, International Paper’s plant in Franklin employs about 1,100 people—a big fraction of the town’s 8,400 residents. The rotten egg smell associated with it is something they’ve been willing to put up with for generations in return for a steady paycheck. As in other such news stories, local old-timers remember the odor as being far worse in the past. Their recollections appear to be accurate: a spokesman for the mill tells Kimberlin that total reduced sulfur output (the main source of odor) has been cut 95 percent in the last decade.

The advent of modern pollution controls has dimmed the intensity of Franklin’s olfactory beacon, no doubt to the relief of downwind cities. According to Kimberlin the stink would occasionally carry as far as Norfolk in the old days, a distance of some 40 miles.

With less sulfur comes less smell and, inevitably, a less memorable impression. The loss of a stink is unlikely to be mourned, but it’s a loss none the less. And with it may fade the collective bargain made by the citizens of Franklin: namely that a little rotten egg smell is an acceptable price for employment and the manufacture of a valued product. NIMBYism is luxury they decided they could live without.

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