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Something smells rotten in Aspen

Brent Gardner-Smith

You can smell it sometimes at the base of Buttermilk. Sometimes it wrinkles noses near the Wheeler Opera House. The back corner of the Hotel Jerome has been a chronic location. One local always smells it near the corner of Galena and Cooper. And it can crop up just about anywhere in downtown Aspen one day and be gone the next.

It smells like pungent gas coming from a sewer, and one whiff can conjure up images of 100-year-old sewer pipes leaking beneath the streets of the old mining town.

But according to Tom Bracewell, superintendent of the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District, the offending odor is most likely caused by grease, oils and food particles that have been washed down restaurant kitchen drains and are now lodged in grease traps.

“It’s going to happen around a food-processing establishment,” said Bracewell. “You are smelling the vents off the grease trap themselves.”

That’s the message Bracewell has delivered to the Aspen City Council, which queried him on the topic and then likely learned more than they really wanted to know.

Almost all restaurants have grease traps. They are designed to screen off some of the organic matter from kitchens before they enter the main sewer line, along with wastewater from dishwashers and other kitchen sources.

The traps are typically 1,000-gallon concrete tanks buried underground near restaurants. They are usually pumped out on a regular schedule by commercial outfits, and the mixture of grease, oil and foodstuffs is then trucked to a landfill.

But sometimes when conditions are right, the air near a grease trap can get ripe. It happens more often in the winter, and it happens frequently when there is a temperature inversion. When the valley floor is colder than the mountain peaks, a ceiling of warm air traps whatever is in the air below it, be it smoke, fog or the scent of rotting organic material.

Aspen is particularly vulnerable to clouds of smelly air lingering about its downtown because of the high concentration of restaurants and other stores that work with food – 123 in all, according to Bracewell.

Oils used in cooking are especially difficult to remove once they reach the wastewater treatment plant.

“We have to have grease traps in town so it doesn’t overwhelm the plant,” Bracewell said, noting that most restaurants pour most of their grease and oil into rendering barrels.

And using chemicals such as chlorine to wipe out the occasional odors would pose too large a risk for what is at best an inconvenience, Bracewell said.

“It’s a perceived problem,” he said.

“It’s not something that because your wife smelled it your baby is going to grow two heads.”

If indeed the majority of the local odors are caused by the way the local system is set up to handle kitchen wastewater, it may also be a reflection of the local cuisine.

“The better proprietors don’t have odor problems,” Bracewell said, noting that the local sushi bars, with their lack of meat and limited use of oil, don’t contribute much at all to their grease traps. “The sushi guys get off scot-free.”

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Posted: Tuesday, March 6, 2001


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