What's that smell? Hillsboro plants blamed for foul odor

What's that smell? Hillsboro plants blamed for foul odor
A chemical from Intel and a company called TOK America mixed with residential sewage at this treatment plant and elsewhere in Hillsboro, creating a strong, unpleasant odor, according to water officials.

HILLSBORO, Ore. – Residents of a Hillsboro neighborhood say an odor is making them sick and the culprit may be a chemical being discharged into the sewer by some of the biggest companies in our area.
“For me, you walk in the door and (the odor) instantly hits the puke button,” said Donna Taylor, a dental hygienist at Hillsboro Dental Center.

For the past five years, Taylor has been sickened by an odor she smells on and off while at work.

“It’s somewhere between dirty socks and rotten eggs,” she said. “It’s worse than anything I’ve ever smelled before.”

“It’s like a rotten egg, maybe icky cabbage,” added Tami Guzman, who also works at the dental office. 

The smell has been so troublesome that Guzman and her co-workers have kept a “stink log” indicating the location, time, and intensity of the smell. In addition, the dentists hired a plumber to make improvements.

Since starting her job as a receptionist two years ago, Guzman has been suffering symptoms that she blames on the smell.

“I feel like it’s completely altered my health,” explained Guzman. “I couldn't breathe. I had wheezing. I ended up in urgent care I can't tell you how many times.”

“I actually had to come in, go downstairs and throw up, and I feel sick for most of the morning,” said Taylor, who’s also complained of headaches. “It was to the point that I’d walk in and I just wanted to turn around and walk back out.”

“The smell was worse than raw sewage,” said Michele Whittaker, a neighbor near the Rock Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility. That’s a few miles away from the dental office. 

Whittaker has been dealing with the stink in her neighborhood for four years.

“When I couldn't even enjoy my backyard is when I filed a complaint,” said Whittaker, who complained to Clean Water Services (CWS), the agency responsible for wastewater management for 250,000 customers in Washington County.

Mark Jockers, the government and public affairs manager for CWS, said the agency started receiving complaints in the summer of 2012 from neighbors who live around the Rock Creek Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility. Complaints from the dental office date back to 2008.

So what’s the source of the problem? CWS determined that Intel’s plants at Ronler Acres, Hawthorn Farm, and TOK America use a chemical solvent called DMSO - dimethyl sulfoxide - in their manufacturing processes in Hillsboro.
“It’s ubiquitous in sewage, but when we see a higher concentration of it mixing with domestic sewage, it creates a very strong odor,” explained Jockers.

That’s what happened last year. According to CWS, TOK America upped the amount of DMSO that it discharges into the wastewater system in April. Intel increased its DMSO discharge in August.

Intel has a separate pipe for its industrial waste. It combines with residential sewage at the Rock Creek Treatment Facility.

TOK America’s waste does not have its own line. It mixes with residential sewage north of the dental office before heading to Rock Creek.

“The amount that they were discharging to us (CWS) both from TOK America and Intel was consistent with permits that they have with us,” said Jockers.

The discharges are legal, but CWS asked Intel and TOK America to cut their DMSO discharges by more than 90 percent last month. The companies agreed.

So has it helped?

“They’ve made improvements,” said Whittaker. “I can't guarantee it's 100 percent gone, but to my knowledge, it's way, way better.”

The odor has diminished at the dentist office too, but Guzman is still angry, convinced she's living with long-term consequences.

“What I have now is chronic, so it's not going to go away, which is something that I have to live with,” said Guzman.

The true test will come in the summer, when the odor is usually at its worst. Until then, CWS wants to hear from you.

“It's critical,” said Jockers. “It's really the only way that we can track down these problems is if we get the public to be the eyes, ears and frankly the noses for us.”

  • You can call CWS at (503) 681-3600

If the problem continues, CWS has some additional options:

  • It can look for other sources of DMSO.
  • It can add other chemicals to the wastewater to reduce odor.
  • It can install filters on manhole covers to help with odor.

Now that the DMSO is not going down drain, you may be wondering where it is going. 

Michael Lindsay, Vice President of TOK America’s Oregon plant, told the Problem Solvers that TOK America is using a private disposal company at an extra cost of $30,000 a year.

Jill Eiland, Intel’s Northwest Region Corporate Affairs Manager, said the company has also contracted with an outside hazardous waste disposal company. She declined to comment on how much Intel is spending.

Do you have a story idea or tip for Shellie Bailey-Shah? Email the KATU Problem Solvers.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that "Tokyo Electron America" and "TOK America" were the same company. They are separate companies. Tokyo Electron America has not been connected to the reported odors. We regret the error.