Voronoff's Blog

Feb. 12, 2010 at 6:05pm

The Stench of Tacoma

More than the Aroma

"Beginning in the 1930s, Tacoma became known for the "Tacoma Aroma", a distinctive, acrid odor produced by paper manufacturing on the industrial tide flats..." 

~From Wikipedia

"The aroma of Tacoma: time-varying average derivatives and the effect of a superfund site on house prices."~read the whole article at Access My Library.

From the Urban Dictionary: "Tacoma, Washington used to have distinct smell thanks to paper mills ; affectionately called the Tacoma Aroma by non-Tacomans. Smell is 99% according to the source. Non-Tacomans still THINK they can smell it.. But they just smell their own ass."

"Tacoma, Washington has a distinct smell thanks to paper mills and cow shit; affectionately called the Tacoma Aroma by non-Tacomans."

The Aroma of Tacoma is VERY REAL and your friendly neighborhood Ghost Critic is going to attempt to document this atrocious stench.  Just check out this article for a small teaser.  Rosemary Ponnekanti seems to think the Aroma is actually the 'smell of artistic success'!!!!! 

"....more than once I got in response the mysterious phrase, “oh, the aroma of Tacoma.”  Apparently, there’s a paper factory around here that gives the city a stinky reputation.  So far this week, I’ve found the aroma of Tacoma to be quite nice. They’re teaching us how they understand (1) the message of the gospel, (2) identities in the gospel, and (3) rhythms or practices because of the gospel..." From Sojourn Visual Arts

what do you think, Tacomans? Shall I continue with my research?

"That's the flatulent bouquet of 100 years of industrial development. 

But along with hydrogen sulfide, the vapors of animal rendering and assorted industrial fumes, there is change in the air for Tacoma..

Tacoma earned its rank reputation during decades of industrial growth. Here, where a shipping port converges with a railroad, sprouted a tidal basin full of pulp mills, rendering plants, chemical factories, petroleum processors and aluminum smelters. Their combined vapors went aloft into a tiny air basin plagued by thermal inversions. Odors were trapped and concentrated.

The Aroma of Tacoma. It's been known that way for at least 50 years.


~ from the LA Times


Not seriously,

Voronoff the Ghost Critic

comments [49]  |  posted under art, don't not art art, feed tacoma, feed this, not art, tacoma


by greenfringegarden on 2/12/2010 @ 6:57pm
That looks like a Big Mac smeared on cement...I say tax it and give all of us health insurance! Good work! Oil in action.

by Erik on 2/12/2010 @ 8:09pm
That looks like a Big Mac smeared on cement

You smeared a hamburger on the ground. Hmmm. Ok. That's art I guess. Food art.

by NineInchNachos on 2/12/2010 @ 8:14pm
looks like upchuck to me. Drunkard performance art? Thanks for that link to the pi, entertaining!

by Voronoff on 2/12/2010 @ 8:41pm
right on the money, R.R.!
Erik, just so you know the Ghost Critic cannot take any responsibility for actually creating the compositions that are captured here; the humble photographer merely has aimed the camera at certain interesting artifacts left by humans in this city that we all exist in.
But what we really need to be discussing is the Aroma.
Forget about art for a sec.
This town Stinks.

by L.S.Erhardt on 2/12/2010 @ 8:42pm
Depends what you smell.

I miss the days of Nalley's pickles. Smelling dills on the breeze was a nice thing.

Now, if you happen to get the whiff of Simpson-Kraft, the rendering plant, the millions of tons of diesel exhaust or the gentle scent of crude oil wafting from the Port, it's the smell of money.
...dumptrucks and dumptrucks full of cold hard cash.

by Voronoff on 2/12/2010 @ 9:41pm
yes, well, I am not so sure what my poor nose has suffered while living and breathing Tacoma air.

Blame it all on Simpson-Kraft? I wouldn't think of it.

Perhaps mixed with the sweet smell of Tacoma's Sewage Waste Treatment Plant, located across the Bay in the Tide Flats? They have two enormous circular vats that are 24/7 swirling around a very foul brown liquid mix of the city resident's poop.

so many times I've tried to capture in words the essence of the bouquet of strange smells that the Aroma inspires. It is a toxic curry of diversity. At times it could knock me off my feet, make me choke, remind me of burnt Chinese food. It is a sour, acrid stench that seems somehow thick and clingy.

Maybe it's just the century of built up industrial waste, the legacy of ASARCO, the toxic sludge that got 'cleaned up' but we all know it's there, along with the 10-legged starfish (and I really saw this one).

by Erik on 2/12/2010 @ 11:35pm
In the early 90s, I lived in 31 Broadway.There usually was not any aroma.

If the calm wind currents were just right, the aroma would waft twice a month.

Now it is almost impossible to get any aroma. One has to basically buy it to re-create the smell.

by Voronoff on 2/13/2010 @ 11:30am
well, I can understand if you've lived here that long, you have most likely grown accustomed to the stench. As Ghost Critic I have interviewed a number of individuals born and raised in the Gritty City who claim there is no smell.

For someone like me, who spent last summer breathing the crystal mountain air of Alaska, the often offensive smell that drifts across Commencement Bay is a consistent harassment. Perhaps it is as the man from Urban Dictionary said, that the smell is actually from my own posterior. But I doubt it.

by boearc on 2/13/2010 @ 11:49am
I love the topic - every city has an odor - it is just some are more pugnent than others. Naples, Venice, and Mumbai come to mind (and that great scene in Harold + Maude with her scent machine of NYC in the winter). Arriving here in 1989, there were times when the odor would make your eyes water. When filming 'I love you to Death', Tracy Uhlman would joke with a sniff ' Oooh Darling, I think the City just farted.' But the improvement in the 20 years has been amazing - so why not continue to build on Tacoma's olfactory reputation? Blast Brown + Haley chocolate fragarence up and out? Work with DOT to get all of the I-5 berms (and pending ST berms) planted with fragarent shrubs? But then hey, I like the nasal assault of really low tide. Tacoma - Sight, Sound, Touch, and Smell.

by wildcelticrose on 2/13/2010 @ 11:52am
Low tide in its self has an interesting odor;

Not only do we have the sewage treatment plant on the tideflats, but a stinkier one at Mason Creek just off of Ruston Way; anyone who's run or walked on the waterfront knows that one...

The Simpson smell was remediated by a 2nd treatment tank. They actually have a pretty impressive bio-remediation plant, but if you don't feed those bugs (bacteria) just right or if the temperature is wrong, they do not flocctuate properly and don't do their job (why yes, I have toured the facility when working in water quality) when they're just on the one tank, we get the aroma.

The one that kills me is the burning plastic smell that often emanates from the tideflats; it is quite pungent in the early hours of the morning near Stadium, downtown and the Foss Waterway.

I don't know what it is, but it can't be healthy to breathe.

There is a plant on the Hylebos waterway that the city can use to burn trash and/or roofing shingles for power. I can't remember if they are still able to use it on an "emergency" plan or not, but it has been a source of great controversy in the past.

by dolly varden on 2/13/2010 @ 12:46pm
I've always wondered what the burning plastic smell is. I agree it can't be good.

The tendency of Tacomans to downplay, rationalize or even romanticize our industrial air issues is totally weird. Et tu, Mr. Boe?

Call me crazy, but I think noxious, smelly industrial facilities should be sited away from major population centers, not in the middle of them.

by NineInchNachos on 2/13/2010 @ 1:24pm
The historic garbage burning Steam Plant on the port is long gone. gutted and parts sold off. We have the efforts of the Tacoma Urbanist to thank for that.

by NineInchNachos on 2/13/2010 @ 1:26pm
I also think the aroma help keep those waterfront condo projects the huge anti-success they are today. What rich person wants to open the balcony doors to an atmosphere pregnant with the stench of ass?

by Altered Chords on 2/13/2010 @ 1:33pm
WHere I grew up there were 2 prominent odors.
1) Rohm and Haas chemical plant. It was about 6 miles away and the noxious fumes actually made it difficult to breathe

2) Nabisco bakery. Like grandma's kitchen X 700. The only time it bothered me was walking 2 miles from the bus stop carrying a tenor saxophone and a backpack full of high school books in 95 degree heat and 94% humidity. It almost made me throw up.

In contrast commencement bay at low tide, paper mill, a random pile of cat poop and a few discarded food items on the sidewalk downtown do not disturb me much.

by Voronoff on 2/13/2010 @ 1:34pm
Perhaps this article may shed some light (from 9/09)
" Construction continues at the Tacoma Tarpits Superfund site, including augering and boring holes which may be bringing highly toxic material to the surface and breaching the Superfund site's cap...." www.tahomaorganizer.org/bordc-tacoma-fil...

by panachronic on 2/13/2010 @ 1:44pm
These comments are making me chuckle. The earliest reference I see here is from Erik, talking about the early 90s. Folks, if that's as far back as any of you go, then you simply don't know what the aroma is all about.

by dolly varden on 2/13/2010 @ 1:49pm
AC, the "it's relatively OK now" argument is what I'm talking about. I guess it's understandable to some extent given how much worse things used to be, but to people who moved from somewhere with better air (or would otherwise move here), it's a big deal. The tendency of locals to love the corporations that ruin their cities is similar to Stockholm Syndrome -- you see it in Butte and Libby Montana too, and with the Ruston residents who won't replace the dirt in the yards out of "loyalty" to the company they worked for.

I'm sure RR is right that air is a factor in the condo woes along the Foss -- accompaned of course by the broader housing crash.

by Voronoff on 2/13/2010 @ 1:58pm
haha! dolly, i love the reference to Stockholm Syndrome!

I suppose I can understand to a certain extent, that if you live someplace, why knock it? why not make peace with the aroma and just call it quits?

For one thing, there' s nothing else interesting going on, so I thought I'd initiate the conversation I've always wanted to have.

Aside from the awful odor wafting across Thea Foss, can you just imagine living ON TOP of a century of toxic waste!? And those beautiful condos going in over at ASARCO...what a lovely view. Will people moving here from Cali or the East coast bother to come do a smell - check before they relocate?

by NSHDscott on 2/13/2010 @ 2:10pm
I can smell that paper mill from my home in North Slope (just past Stadium) about once a month on average, when the weather conditions are right. I know it's the paper mill because I know what Albany, OR smells like, and it's the same. That city has an even worse reputation for stink than Tacoma does, and more deserved too! Anyway, once a month is really no big deal, and I can't smell any other smells. Seems like you can smell it slightly more often from downtown, and from the freeway, which is fine for Tacoma residents but bad for Tacoma reputation.

I always liked the idea of pumping Brown and Haley scent into the air of downtown. I don't know if the idea is realistic, or possible, or if I'd really like it once it was actually implemented, but I do like the idea itself. Speaking of B&H, any status on their move/upgrade/whatever?

by dolly varden on 2/13/2010 @ 2:13pm
I live in the same neighborhood -- once a month is normally right, but the SE winds lately (due to El Nino according to Cliff Mass) have made it worse where I am. In the summer the McKinley, Lincoln, and UWT area are hit hard by skanky north winds.

by Altered Chords on 2/13/2010 @ 3:10pm
I just spoke w/ a B&H exec yesterday who told me they moved their business offices to the Fabulich building.

THat nabisco smell in philly was from a bakery. even subway baking bread smells good. We need a huge bakery in the tideflats. I don't think candy manufacturing will do it.

by Voronoff on 2/13/2010 @ 3:50pm
"magazine(Rolling Stone) claims Tacoma Aroma made the Boss sick on tour..."

by Voronoff on 2/13/2010 @ 3:54pm
From Livin in the Land of Smiles:
"The Aroma of Tacoma takes your breath away.
You can tell it, you can smell it, when you're fourteen miles away!
From the great Olympic Mountains to the tide flats by the shore,
that aroma will be with us for now and ever more!"

"But the last line in 'Aroma of Tacoma' is no longer true, because the infamous aromas are gone, and GONE FOREVER MORE!"

yeah right!

by Altered Chords on 2/13/2010 @ 4:28pm
I live in the Lincoln area. I thought the aroma during the summer was from my next door neigbors kitchen.

If our aroma makes bruce springsteen sick then he just stay the hell out of tacoma. His crappy music makes me sick. (except for Kitty's Back - which is fantastic)

by NineInchNachos on 2/13/2010 @ 4:42pm
frank zappa had a good Aroma of Tacoma lyric in one of his songs...

Panachronic has a point about pre-90's aroma. Bill Baarsma can tell you all about the yellow arsenic powder coating your car/house/yard in the morning. So bad.

by NineInchNachos on 2/13/2010 @ 4:44pm
"I want a nasty little jewish princess
With long phony nails and a hairdo that rinses
A horny little jewish princess
With a garlic aroma that could level tacoma
Lonely inside
Well, she can swallow my pride"

~ frank zappa

by Altered Chords on 2/13/2010 @ 5:11pm
Zappa - now that's music

by L.S.Erhardt on 2/13/2010 @ 6:55pm
A friend of mine complains about the Aroma when he visits. He lives in a Capitol Hill condo in Seattle. Funny thing is, probably half of the week you can smell that dump near Safeco.

He doesn't even smell the dump anymore.

by Voronoff on 2/13/2010 @ 8:18pm
tacoma: the armpit of the Nation, or the Northwest?

by L.S.Erhardt on 2/13/2010 @ 11:29pm
None of the above. That title was awarded to Lakewood in 2002.

by wildcelticrose on 2/14/2010 @ 1:39pm
yeah well, you should hear what anatomical area they compare Gorst to...

by ixora on 2/14/2010 @ 7:27pm
Tacoma...Smells like tree spirit.

by Voronoff on 2/15/2010 @ 12:26pm
tacoma smells like....
"DIMETHYL DISULFIDE~ with a characteristic odor of decayed fish, DIMETHYL SULFIDE~ with a characteristic odor of decayed vegetables, HYDROGEN SULFIDE~ with
an odor reminiscent of rotten eggs, METHYL MERCAPTAN~ with a characteristic odor reminiscent of decayed cabbage...."

these components all sound familiar to me. Kraft-Simpson unleashes a combination of these wonderful aromas onto the unfortunate citizens of this City of Destiny daily.

from Questions and Answers About Kraft: www.gp.com/camas/enviro/MANUAL75.pdf

just trying to educate the citizens of this city, and myself....

by Voronoff on 2/15/2010 @ 1:46pm
The Aroma of Tacoma: a smell you can taste!

by Voronoff on 2/15/2010 @ 3:22pm
The State of Tacoma's air:

by morgan on 2/15/2010 @ 4:27pm
Re: Burning Smell -
The burning smell may be coming from the Atlas Foundry in Nalley Valley - which was just ate up by a larger company after the company that got eaten up ate up the locally owned company some years back. The fish keep on getting bigger and sometimes they swim away.

Re: Tacoma's Perception -
Tacoma leaders need to ask themselves if this city will ever live up to expectations as long as companies that put god-awful smells in the air are here. Even if the odors could be eliminated, simply having Simpson's belching steam visible from beyond the city limits creates a perception that Tacoma is dirty by current residents - and potential future residents.

Re: Simpson Mill Steam -
The irony is that Simpson is a major customer of the City of Tacoma - via Tacoma Public Utilities. Half the water supplied to the city goes to residents, the other half is sold to Simpson. It is thanks to Simpson's arrangement with Tacoma that it was able to quietly build a power station which it uses to generate and sell electricity to California. Wish I would have thought of that!

by wildcelticrose on 2/15/2010 @ 4:34pm
interestingly enough, Tacoma Simpson Craft is (or was as of the last time I was reviewing NPDS discharge permits) the biggest polluter (discharge directly into the waterway) into Commencement Bay.

They have walls lined with environmental awards because they have set and in some cases exceeded industry standards.

But what does it say about the industry when the biggest polluter of our bay is winning awards for exceeding standards?

Oh, and for those who aren't aware, it is perfectly legal to discharge pollutants into the bay as long has you have a permit from the state and dilute it first. (and no, dilution is not the solution to pollution and the state allows for "mixing zones" of pollutants citing the very law (the clean water act) that was supposed to eliminate toxic discharge into our waterways.

by Altered Chords on 2/15/2010 @ 4:45pm
If there is an award for blog posts it should go to Ixia for the slogan: "smells like tree spirit"

I love it.

The smell
What is in the air
Tree Spirit

A taiku poem by Altered Chords and Ixia.

by ixora on 2/15/2010 @ 4:56pm
Hey, thanks Altered Chords! But my pseudonym is Ixora. Coincidentally, Ixia is my spouse. Cheers:)

by Altered Chords on 2/15/2010 @ 8:05pm
Too late. The royalty checks have alreadygone out to ixia. It's all in the family though.

by ixia on 2/15/2010 @ 8:30pm
more about smells like tree spirit

by ALT on 4/21/2010 @ 12:12pm
Another latent reply typical of yours truly...

While Downtown Tacoma occasionally smells like a burst sewer pipe, I still don't think it's as bad as the East Grand Forks funk of Minnesota. The potato processing plants make the place smell like s***...comprised of tator-tots...ALL THE TIME.

by Voronoff on 4/21/2010 @ 12:40pm
it smells worse if you walk on Thea Foss Esplanade, off and on any day of the week. Is it Simpson -Kraft, or Shi-Who-Lee's MuseumOfGlass that reeks so awfully? I won't miss it. Portland smells like Roses.

by ALT on 4/21/2010 @ 2:41pm
I always thought Commencement Bay was the culprit; salt water shorelines tend to have that sulfuric stink. Like a bunch of bivalves farted in unison.

by Crenshaw Sepulveda on 4/21/2010 @ 5:22pm
I get that same thing sometimes when I walk past the Club Silverstone, but I suspect in this case it is bisexuals farting in unison.

by jenyum on 4/21/2010 @ 5:35pm
You might be interested in this old post from 2008. Has some names/numbers to report air quality issues.


by ALT on 4/21/2010 @ 5:56pm
Maybe Tacoma just needs a splash of Old Spice. This city has a manly smell hangin' alllll over it.

by Jesse on 4/21/2010 @ 9:03pm
Take it from me, Portland doesn't smell like roses. It smells like B.O. and patuli oil from all those jobless hippies and fake "street kids" that are really from Beaverton.

by L.S.Erhardt on 4/22/2010 @ 8:21pm
Not sure what the Portland Aroma is, but if you're at my buddy's condo on First Hill in Seattle, that smell is the dump in SODO. None too nice on a hot summer's day...