See more of the story

South St. Paul residents say the century-old stockyard stench in their city remains strong — and it’s more noxious than ever now that they’re spending all their time working and playing at home due to COVID-19.

“This Saturday was a gross violation,” said City Council Member Joe Kaliszewski. “It actually made you walk outside and curl up your nose.”

After seeing a significant growth in complaints since the coronavirus hit, the council last week unanimously voted to bolster the city’s nuisance ordinance to crack down on businesses producing the smell, which has been likened to that of rotting flesh.

The existing ordinance, in place since 2014, worked fine if a business agreed to address the problem, said City Planner Michael Healy. But “it lacks clarity in terms of teeth,” he said, if a company doesn’t want to work with the city.

“This seems like a logical next step,” he said.

The tougher ordinance has renewed a long-simmering conflict between South St. Paul and Green Bay, Wis.-based Sanimax, which objected to the ordinance changes and also is suing the city over a recent zoning change prohibiting some land uses.

“This appears to be yet another attempt by the city to target Sanimax,” wrote Stephan Nickels, Sanimax’s attorney, in a letter to city officials. He called the tougher odor ordinance “unfair” and “ambiguous.”

City officials declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

At least one council member said the miasma comes from several places and not just Sanimax, an animal rendering plant and a vestige of the stockyards and meatpacking plants that once dominated South St. Paul. Other animal-related businesses — and possible odor generators — include tanning and hide businesses and a beef processing plant.

The revised ordinance allows the city to send a warning letter to a business and then begin issuing citations and fines. The starting rate is $200 and fines double after that, maxing out at $2,000.

The city contracts with a firm to check out odor complaints but it operates only during business hours, officials said. Kaliszewski said some companies deliberately don’t steam out their “gut rooms” until after hours, knowing that odor complaints can’t be verified on nights and weekends.

City Attorney Peter Mikhail said that the ordinance applies at all times and that odors don’t have to be verified for the law to apply. Mayor Jimmy Francis said the city records complaints via its hotline on nights and weekends, even if they aren’t verified.

“For anybody that’s not up to speed on all the iterations of what we’ve tried to do here over the years, this is not the city trying to be big, bad bullies against any particular company,” said Council Member Bill Flatley.

Other companies in South St. Paul complain that the “immensely bad smells” affect their businesses’ viability, Flatley said. “We need to be able to do something,” he said.

Sanimax filed a suit last week in district court against the city, objecting to a zoning amendment passed in November that prohibits several land uses in a newly designated area.

The prohibited uses include slaughterhouses and refineries where animals are rendered and processed. The result for Sanimax is that the business may operate as a “legal nonconforming use” but can’t repair or expand its facility.

In the suit, the company says it has made “substantial efforts to cooperate” with South St. Paul to address its alleged impact on other properties. It argues that it’s being unfairly targeted by South St. Paul.

Sanimax also sued the city in 2017, challenging the nuisance ordinance as “unconstitutionally vague.” After South St. Paul modified the ordinance and withdrew its classification of Sanimax as a “significant odor generator,” the company dropped the suit.

The city then proposed a zoning amendment that would have prohibited Sanimax from continuing several of its basic processes. Sanimax objected and the city withdrew the ordinance.