HOWARD - Normally a company like Sanimax would operate quietly, tucked away in an industrial park off the highway. The road in front of the animal rendering plant doesn't get a lot of regular traffic but Sanimax does stand out.
"I don't see it, I smell it and so do my constituents," said Brown County Board supervisor Pat Evans.
Evans is talking about the smell that some say often permeates from the Sanimax plant in the village of Howard. He represents those living nearby in Northwest Green Bay, oftentimes downwind of the plant. It's a problem he's been addressing for a dozen years.
"Is this the number one complaint you get from residents?" FOX11 Investigates reporter Mark Leland asked Evans.
"Absolutely," confirmed Evans.
Evans has logged countless complaints over the years. But 'official' resident complaints have to be filed with the Brown County Health Department. And then only a small number of those complaints are actually verified by sanitarians who respond when they can to the scene.
But the total complaints filed have increases over time. Three years ago the health department logged 12 odor complaints against Sanimax. In 2012 the number grew to 51. And last year it climbed to 75 complaints.
Rob Gollman is the health department's environmental health division supervisor.
"Why are we seeing a huge rise in the number of complaints?" Leland asked Gollman.
"I can't tell you you why. It would be pure conjecture," said Gollman.
Yet Sanimax officials say they have been making significant progress in reducing its odor profile, down 61 percent last year from the year before.
"Sanimax is very proud of the efforts its made over the past few years having invested $3-million in infrastructure improvements," said Josh Koch, the attorney representing Sanimax.
"Sanimax is proud to announce its gone 63 days now through the summer without having a single verified odor complaint," said Koch.
"One morning I walked out of the house to the car and went, 'Oh my god'," said Howard resident Robert Hesson, who filed a complaint. He says the foul odor coming from Sanimax is a constant issue.
"Can you describe the intensity of it?" Leland asked.
"Wet dog food. There's some mornings that you...it smells like sticking your head in a bag of dog food," said Hesson.
Hesson lives about a quarter mile north of the Sanimax plant. Marie Berg lives a mile or so away.
"The smell. How bad is it?" Leland asked Berg.
"It's putrid. It smells like garbage," said Berg.
Residents complain they can't entertain outside. Or just sit on their front stoop. That the smell keeps them locked up inside.
"The residents have a right to have unfettered enjoyment of their own property," said David Steffen, who sits on the village of Howard board and the Brown County board.
Two weeks ago he and a few other county supervisors met privately with Sanimax officials and believes the company is working to address neighbor concerns.
"I think they are making efforts. The question is, one, are they the right ones. And, two, are they enough?" asked Steffen.
Some residents say no and with the help of a Milwaukee law firm have now filed a civil suit against Sanimax for allowing or failing to correct the odor problem. They want the case to go forward as a class action.
"If your private property rights are being affected by the actions of another, in this case Sanimax, this release of this odor, you don't have to stand around and wait for government action to take place you can be active yourself and that's what we're doing," said Keith Trower with Warshafsky Law Firm.
Trower explained the suit that was filed in Dane County, where Sanimax operates another plant.
"This sort of issue has been addressed in other similar operations. ThIs is not impossible, it's very doable. We're asking Sanimax match their effortsin productions with their efforts in mitigation. Be a good neighbor," said Trower.
Sanimax says the company is a good neighbor working to mitigate the odor issues.
Here is what we uncovered about Sanimax's efforts to clear the air.
In 2009, the company installed a pre-treatment system to triple-treat medium intensity odors.
In 2012, air scrubbers were added to the company's animal hides building. Odors from that building were previously not controlled.
That year the company's two major air scrubbers on their stacks were also updated.
And in 2013, Sanimax invested in a regenitive thermal oxidizer. That is used to thermally treat the most intense odors.
"In terms of operating resources in the past year I've hired three chemical engineers to specifically look at how we handle and how treat odor. On top of that we've brought in several leading industry consultants to help us improve," said Sanimax general manager Donn Johnson answering questions before the Brown County Board back in March.
At the time the county board was considering a change to the county's odor ordinance to make it easier to issue citations against offenders.
Sanimax was issued two citations in 2013. The total fine owed $2,155. Under the proposed ordinance change Sanimax would have faced five citations.
Sanimax officials promised more cooperation. And several board members representing communities not impacted by Sanimax stood up for the company.
"I have to sympathize with Sanimax..." said supervisor Bill Clancy.
"They've had problems, but I believe them when they say they're making a good faith effort," said supervisor Guy Zima.
"This is not simply a flick of a light bulb and things are fixed. We're on a process. We're on a journey to fix this," said Johnson at the March meeting.
But that journey has been a little too slow for some residents. While over the past 30 years, Sanimax confirms production at the plant has increased dramatically. During that time the company has gone from processing more than 70 million pounds of animal by-products a year to more than 800 million pounds last year.
"There is no doubt the size of that operation has increased exponentially. And with it comes increased odors. And so we need to work with them," said Steffen.
The state's Department of Natural Resources is responsible for monitoring air emissions from the plant. But odor is a nuisance not a health hazard, and those odor complaints fall in the lap of the county health department.
"To respond immediately, it's impossible. We don't have the resources to basically have one person continually on standby just to respond to these complaints," said Gollman.
And that leaves unhappy residents wondering who is sticking up for them.
"By the time I call the health department, which is my only resource, and they get here, and maybe they can smell it--maybe they can't because it wofts," said Berg.
"Up to this point do you think Sanimax has been held responsible for what they're putting out?" Leland asked Trower.
"I don't think so. I think at this point, like I said before, we wouldn't be involved if there wasn't a problem," said Trower.
"Sanimax disputes the allegations it understands in that complaint and plans to put up a vigorous defense," said Koch.
Once formally served with the court documents, Sanimax has 45 days to respond.