One balmy afternoon last April, as Laura Muessig was heading out to the garage behind her house, she heard her next-door neighbor call out.
"What's that smell?" asked Therese Mooney.
An acrid, chemical odor—like a giant permanent marker marinated in lighter fluid—had stunk up the neighborhood for weeks.
Muessig, too, had noticed. She'd followed her nose to the alley just beyond the house next to hers, where an orange-hued wooden utility pole towered overhead. Xcel Energy had replaced an older pole with this one a few months earlier.
Muessig showed Mooney the offending pole and promised to call Xcel Energy to find out why it stunk. She couldn't reach a live person via Xcel's automated system, so she reported a gas leak. The repairman who arrived told Muessig that the utility pole was treated with pentachlorophenol. The stench would worsen in the summer heat, the repairman warned.
Muessig and Mooney immediately began researching pentachlorophenol on the internet. The petroleum-based preservative can extend a pole's life by as much as 50 years. But the chemical is now banned (or more accurately, not approved) in 26 countries, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers it a probable carcinogen. Once widely used as an herbicide, penta is now banned for all uses—all uses, that is, except treating utility poles.
As the months passed and the weather heated up, the odor became so intense that Muessig shut her windows, and Mooney kept her air conditioner turned off. Guests complained; parties were canceled. Mooney stayed out of her garden. Their husbands no longer grilled meat on the shared barbecue atop the fence dividing their yards.
Muessig asked Xcel to replace the pole, and the company offered to swap the Southern pine pole for cedar—at a cost to her of $1,000. When an Xcel employee checked the pole and said it didn't stink, Mooney began doubting that the company would fix the problem at all.
"The audacity for them to doubt that we're smelling something," she says, her blue eyes flashing anger. "It wasn't just Laura and I who were noticing the smell, it was anybody within the area that the wind was blowing."
Muessig held a back-porch meeting to urge other neighbors to complain. She convinced the University of Minnesota's Consumer Protection Law Clinic to research the health risks. The law students at the clinic documented a litany of health problems associated with long-term exposure to penta, including damage to the kidneys, lungs, heart, and reproductive system. Additionally, there's a cancer risk for children exposed to penta-contaminated soil.
When Muessig got City Councilman Cam Gordon involved, Xcel promised to halt installation of new penta poles—753 were planned for Minneapolis, 17 in Seward—until the EPA issued a new ruling on the chemical.
In September, the EPA ruled that penta-treated utility poles do not pose unreasonable risk to humans or the environment. The agency had looked at dozens of studies over 20 years in making its decision. The 36 million penta-treated poles that had sprouted up across the country over 40 years could stay put.
"No one denies the fact that some penta leaches out of the pole," but it is minimal, says John Wilkinson, director of the Penta Council and an employee of penta-maker KMG Chemicals. "We think that if used properly, it's safe."
But the EPA ruling didn't convince the neighbors. The Seward Neighborhood Group asked Xcel to replace all the penta-treated poles in Seward. "They didn't even respond," says Carol Greenwood, chair of the group's environmental committee.
On December 4, representatives from Xcel, the Penta Council, and Koppers—the company that makes Xcel's poles—met with Seward neighbors at the Matthews Recreation Center. The message from Xcel and its business partners was clear: Penta-treated poles were a low-cost, safe option. And the smell? Not related to penta, according to Xcel and the Penta Council. "The smell from the pole is the carrier oil that is used to dissolve penta in," says Wilkinson.
The neighbors delivered a message of their own to Xcel: They wanted poles free of toxic materials. Steel and fiberglass were two options; though costlier than penta-treated wood, the poles would have a similarly long life.
In the months after the meeting, Councilman Gordon's office located a third-party company that was willing to donate a fiberglass pole to replace the smelly one. But Xcel rejected the offer. Instead, Xcel offered a copper napthenate pole, an option that the law clinic is now researching.
In January, the Seward Neighborhood Group urged Xcel to work with the city of Minneapolis and Councilman Gordon's office to find a replacement for chemically treated poles throughout the city. "I'm interested in looking at the city to be some kind of alternative pilot program, testing different poles," Gordon says.
Nearly a year after being planted, the stinky pole remains standing. Xcel representative Patti Nystuen says the smelly pole is an anomaly—a bad pole. According to Nystuen, no one else has complained about smelly penta poles.
Mooney and Muessig are dreading the return of warm weather. Xcel has now replaced the majority of the 753 poles it planned for. "With hundreds more of these smelly and possibly dangerous poles scheduled to be installed in Minneapolis over the next few months, I hate to think what Minneapolis will smell like next year," Muessig told her neighbors at the December meeting. "The inside of a gas tank?"