(This article, bylined by Frank Curreri Forza, originally appeared on the front page of the Deseret News Dec. 10, 1999. In the General Reporting category, the story earned 3rd Place in the Utah-Idaho-Spokane Associated Press Association).
Officially, Dixon Holmes and Roger Gonzalez are zoning enforcement officers. But in this city that is increasingly concerned about how it smells, their job duties are on the verge of expanding.
Led by their noses, Gonzalez and Holmes are part of a small but elite fraternity responsible for determining what is putrid in Provo. They are two of the five members of Provo’s new “Stink Police” — its super sniffers du jour.
“I wouldn’t say it’s one of the more favorable things to do,” Gonzalez said.
That Gonzalez, Holmes and their peers must now referee scents throughout the city was born of necessity and last resort.
Hundreds of callers, particularly residents in the Maeser, Provost and Spring Creek areas, lit up phone lines at city offices last year complaining of potent foul odors in the city’s air.
Roughly 340 of those complaints blamed John Kuhni & Sons Inc., a rendering plant in southeast Provo where millions of dead animal carcasses are burned annually.
Some callers reported the stench was so profuse it made them ill, forced them to leave work early or abandon play at a local golf course.
Since Provo passed a strict new law in July, beginning next month Kuhni’s could be cited for violations, fined or even have its license revoked if it commits more than six odor infractions during a one-year period.
The final verdict on whether Kuhni’s has violated the smell test will rest within the nostrils of the city’s five zoning officers.
“It’s not just, ‘Can we smell it,” Holmes said of the odor threshold for citation. “It’s, ‘Is this really rank?’”
The super sniffers are low-key, casually-dressed sorts who wear jeans or khakis with sneakers on the job.
They are usually dispatched in teams of two after a complaint has been made by a local resident or business.
Empty-handed, the odor investigators carry no special equipment nor high tech devices to measure particulates in the air. Rather, once they arrive on the scene, they put the windows down or get out of the car, inhale the air and await whatever sensation ensues. During a recent smelling survey of a southeast Provo neighborhood, Holmes and Gonzalez demonstrated the technique — otherwise known as breathing.
“I’m smellin’ a little Pacific States (Co.) right now,” Holmes observed.
“Yeah, a little more metallic, industrial smell,” Gonzalez added.
A handful of culprits account for almost all of Provo’s funkiest odors: Kuhni’s the city’s own water sewage treatment plant and compost yard; Pacific States (which sells tiles and pipes) and Reilly Tar and Chemical Co.
Gonzalez jokes that he had to go to “Smelling School” to hone his skills, but actually “the only training we got was learning to identify different types of odors,” Holmes said.
Distinguishing between the five primary odors affecting Provo is quite simple, the investigators said.
Provo’s water sewage treatment plant, Holmes explained, “has a little bit of the rotten egg smell.”
Gonzalez grimly describes Kuhni’s — allegedly the worst smell in Provo — as a “burnt, fleshy smell” that “you can almost taste.”
Holmes characterizes the Kuhni sensory assault as “rotten dog food.”
But under the city’s odor ordinance, Kuhni’s is only in violation if its smell is at or below a level deemed “reasonably offensive or noxious to a reasonable person.” So merely detecting a mild odor is not sufficient for issuing a citation.
The key question: How do you define “reasonable person?”
Bruce Baird, attorney for Kuhni’s, has argued that smell — like a person’s taste in music or clothing — is subjective and varies from person to person. What one person finds repulsive, Baird reasoned, another may not.
Super sniffers and City Attorney Gary McGinn don’t deny that smell is prone to personal preferences but maintain the “reasonable person” standard is fair and as objective as possible.
“We think we’re pretty reasonable,” McGinn said. “My wife thinks I’m pretty reasonable. Dixon Holmes is the most reasonable person I know.
“I can’t think of a better person than Dixon to go out and routinely smell Kuhni’s.”