Residents file lawsuit against a local factory to combat noxious smell

For the past three years Murray Hill residents have sporadically complained about noxious odors akin to the scent of turpentine wafting through their community late at night, early in the morning, and on weekends. And in the past three months, the problem has spread beyond Murray Hill’s borders and has become decidedly worse.

“We could not walk the dog again. That sickly sweet burn-your-nose smell is happening again. I went online and made a complaint again, and you can, too. That would be great. The more of us the merrier. I’m really worried this is cancer causing. It’s so heavy that it just sits at ground level. It’s also really aggravating to not be able to go outside without your nose burning,” reported an Ortega resident on the website NextDoor.

“The smell,” which periodically stinks up the historic communities of Riverside, Avondale, Ortega, in addition to Murray Hill, now has residents registering complaints to city officials from as far away as Sadler Point and Mandarin. “Everybody knows who it is,” said Jacksonville Historian Wayne Wood, who has smelled it so often at his Riverside home that he keeps a tab open on his computer so he can quickly fill out a form to protest it.

The alleged culprit “everybody knows” is International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), a New York-based manufacturer of flavors and fragrances used in the foods, beverages, personal care and household products that is located at 2051 Lane Avenue North in Jacksonville. IFF is also known as IFF Chemical Holdings, Inc., a Delaware corporation. Locally, IFF was served with a cease-and-desist citation from the city’s Environmental Quality Division Dec. 11, 2020 and was hit with a civil lawsuit by three residents of Jacksonville’s historic neighborhoods on Jan. 12.

District 14 City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor said she is serious in her intent to remedy the situation. During a virtual meeting in November with the Murray Hill Preservation Association, DeFoor called for a meeting with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and she is working to make good on her promise.

“We are currently coordinating with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the City’s Environmental Quality Division (EQD), Representative Angie Nixon, and a representative from the Murray Hill Community on the agenda. The date is pending approval between two state agencies as they are now looping in their public relations folks. There will be a public comment section for the community to express their thoughts, and I expect International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) will have representation in attendance. I will send you the final agenda, we have an internal meeting scheduled next Wednesday, Feb. 24, to confirm,” wrote DeFoor’s Executive Assistant Brooks Dame in an email to the Resident. The current date, pending approval will be Thursday, March 11, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Webex, she said.

Josh Gellers, a Murray Hill resident who is also an associate professor of Political Science, has been closely following the smell problem for the Murray Hill Preservation Society. He has accessed hundreds of complaints from residents, not all of which have been able to be followed up by the city. “Part of the problem is that people are not able to have their claims assessed by the city inspectors because of the time limit that occurs,” he said.

“Councilwoman DeFoor remarked at a Murray Hill Preservation Association meeting that she felt that was probably pretty deliberate. She said she thought the company wanted to evade the scrutiny of the inspectors. We know there are hundreds of complaints, and we know a very small fraction of them have been verified. But of those that have been verified, which we know from the city’s reporting, they are traced to IFF,” he continued, noting the irony of it all is that something used to make nice smelling products actually comes from a noxious-smelling chemical.

In complaints filed with the city, nearly all residents lamented about experiencing a burning sensation, shortness of breath, dizziness, and nausea. People who have asthma also describe a resurgence of asthma-like conditions, and the smell affects a wide assortment of living beings including adults, children, and domesticated animals, Gellers said.

City, residents take action

In imposing the cease-and-desist citation, the city began its enforcement process and will work with IFF to figure out what kind of remedy will be appropriate, said Gellers. In a recent meeting of the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board Jan. 19, the issue with IFF was not on the agenda, he said.

Riverside resident Jenny Wright joined Murray Hill residents Natalie Soud and James Cobb in filing an amended class-action complaint and demand for a jury trial against IFF in January. The lawsuit has been filed as Civil Action No. 3:21-cv-0012-J-39MCR with the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida Jacksonville Division.

The lawsuit is not restricted to the three plaintiffs but instead is setting the stage for a larger class-action suit that members of the community can join, said Gellers. The plaintiffs, who are working with a lawyer from Michigan. The residents first filed a lawsuit that was struck down by the judge who, after reviewing the complaint, dismissed it saying that some of the allegations raised against IFF were redundant, Gellers explained. “In the actual suit, they had to enumerate a number of causes of action and the judge basically said all of them were the same – none of them together arose to the kind of legal cause for action that was greater than the individual claims they were making.”

After the dismissal, the plaintiffs had until January 22 to pare down their arguments in an amended complaint. In the new complaint, the plaintiffs have drawn boundaries for class-action suit membership to include a five-mile radius south of the IFF facility. This could possibly include thousands of residents living in Riverside, Avondale, Ortega, Murray Hill, Downtown Jacksonville, the Southbank, San Marco, and St. Nicholas.

In the November public meeting, Chief Melissa Long of the Jacksonville Environmental Quality Division, said IFF has denied that it is the source of the odor.

On its website, IFF has stated that sustainability is important to the company. “Given the size and footprint of our company, we understand the impact our choices can have on the world and its natural resources. This is why we continue to work to embed sustainability into everything we do, why we engage our employees to make a difference where they can, and why we tap our technical expertise to engineer products that leverage the amazing opportunities of circular design. We are committed to managing our impacts as they relate to climate change, energy use, water, and waste.”

Also noted on the IFF website was this statement: “Our vision is to achieve positive transformational change, and we are making great progress. After meeting all of our 2020 environmental targets early, in 2018 we launched new environmental goals to carry us to 2025 and beyond. These initiatives, which focus on emission reductions, zero waste to landfill, and water stewardship, are known collectively as ‘EcoEffective+.”

Jacksonville’s odorous history

The present-day smell is not the first time Jacksonville has battled noxious odors, said Wood.

“Years ago, our city stunk, and everybody knew it. It took a long time for anyone to do anything about it,” he recalled, adding that nearly 50 years ago there was a pervasive smell that emanated from a perfume factory in North Jacksonville. “People would pass through Jacksonville on the interstate, smell it and say ‘That’s a horrible smell. This is a horrible town,’ and they would keep going.” Wood said the solution to the problem occurred in the 1980s when Tommy Hazouri was the mayor. “He got them to quit,” Wood said. “If it wasn’t for that time, Jacksonville would never have the Jaguars, the Sugar Bowl, or anything of the things we have today. Every citizen got in the habit of complaining every time they smelled it, and eventually the City Department of Environmental Regulation did something about it. So far, I’m aghast that they have not shut it down now because obviously it is regular and it has diminished our quality of life,” he said.

“If they don’t take care of this, the same thing will happen,” Wood continued. “People will start moving away if this is not a pleasant place to live 24 hours a day.”

In the meantime, Wood and his wife, Lana Shuttleworth, said they will continue to report the vile odor every time they smell it. They encourage their friends and neighbors to do the same.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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