The State: Welcome to Smell-aware

Delaware isn’t spoiled. It just smells that way sometimes. To find out why, take our Cherry Island-to-chicken house tour of unique aromas.


illustration by Dav Bourdeleau

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Smell is the sense most closely tied with memory. Close your eyes and take a whiff somewhere around Delaware and synapses will immediately begin to fire. There’s a good chance you recognize Thrashers fries, Grotto pizza and the Kraft Foods factory solely by scent. But in a tiny state that runs on poultry, dairy, chemicals and petroleum, there’s bound to be some funk.

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Luckily, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control is ever vigilant when it comes to offensive smells. “Delaware is a very small state, so we are very acutely aware and control odors a lot more,” says James Werner, DNREC’s director of Air and Waste Management. “We have environmental protection officers carrying 9-millimeter sidearms, and they have arrest capabilities. And we do that every day.”

DNREC sometimes fines offenders based on citizen complaints. (Hit up 1-800-662-8802 if something stinks.) Of the 245 violating odors recorded in the last calendar year by DNREC, 153 were in New Castle County, 31 were in Kent and 61 in Sussex. The northern section of the state smells like industry, the southern portion like agriculture. And in Kent, where suburban sprawl is beginning to take over, new problems arise. “You have farms being paved over for suburbs, and that has enormous implications,” Werner says. “It’s non-point source runoff, loss of habitat and additional pollution sources.”

For some people, nasty odors are a nuisance that renders their property uninhabitable. For others, it’s just a benign throwaway to either ignore or adapt to. “It’s an important issue in a small place like Delaware,” Werner says. “People have to be good neighbors.”

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So follow your nose on a tour of Delaware’s most odoriferous spots—and be grateful DT has yet to perfect scratch ’n’ sniff technology.


Location Delaware Bay

The smell Old, hot sushi

The perpetrator Dead, sunbathing horseshoe crabs

The dish For the horseshoe crab, it really is a matter of stink or swim. Every year, about 10 percent of the crab’s breeding population dies when the surf flips them onto their backs, and, well, they fall and can’t get up. The decaying crabs “give off kind of a rank odor,” says Patrick Emory, director of the DNREC’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.

The damage The stinky, helplessly top-heavy crabs have an ally in a non-profit environmental team called the Ecological Resource and Development Group, which launched a campaign called “Just Flip ’Em,” in the hopes that beach goers will simply turn the crabs back over so they can scutter back to sea. But Emory argues that the crusty crustaceans serve a purpose. “It’s all part of the food chain,” he says. “If a crab flips over and dies, there are birds and all sorts of other animals that feed on the carcass.” Bon appétit, we guess.


Location Claymont

The smell Armpits bathed in sulfur

The perpetrator Fugitive emissions from nearby Marcus Hook, your one-stop shop for oil refineries

The dish Most of Sunoco’s operations are just over the state line in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, along with a Valero plant and a few others. Sun’s ethylene flare is actually on Claymont soil. On bad days, a sickly sour smell emits from the northeast but, believe it or not, it’s a lot better than it was years ago. “When I was younger back in the ’70s, from time to time when the wind blew in from the northeast, Claymont would get the harmless-but-nasty sulfur smell,” says Brett Saddler, leader of the Claymont Renaissance redevelopment group. “Since moving back to the area in 1996, I have not noticed any of the odors of years gone by.”

The damage Significant. Few local companies have been less kind to the ozone over the years than Sunoco. Sunoco processes sulfur-laden waste gases inside Delaware at the border-straddling refinery in Claymont. Sunoco has been fined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for record-keeping errors, incomplete emissions reports, and worst, for exceeding limits of toxics and volatile organic compounds into the air. Between EPA and DNREC regulations and improved voluntary controls at the facilities, much of the Marcus Hook pew factor has been eliminated, Saddler says.


Location Millsboro

The smell Denial

The perpetrator The Mountaire Farms poultry processing plant

The dish “Well, it’s a poultry processing plant,” says Jeff Smith, environmental manager at Mountaire. “It smells like agriculture.”

Chicken is a billion-dollar industry in Delaware, and Mountaire is one of the most effective plants in the nation. But there’s no denying that anaerobic decomposition of poultry waste creates some amazingly heinous stenches. Part of the effectiveness is the plant straddles Del. 24, so commuters can get a face-first whiff. Egg hatcheries, spread elsewhere around Sussex, are a horse of a different odor.

The damage Mountaire stands by its claim that standard industry practices (i.e., indoor processing, covered trucks) keep smells at bay. Head of public relations Roger Marino says the company doesn’t field complaints from nearby businesses, mostly because there aren’t any nearby businesses. Why could that be?


Location Delaware Stadium, Newark

The smell Mild and sour with a hint of hay

The perpetrator Freshly baked cow-pies

The dish On a breezy game day, wayward winds carry the scent from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ farm, which is within punting distance of the stadium. “You notice it especially after the fireworks at night,” says UD athletic director Edgar Johnson. “After the Blue-Gold All-Star Game they shoot off the fireworks. I guess then the cows release their flatulence? I have no idea. But it’s a wonderful farm whiff.”

The damage Negligible. Although the UD football team limped to a 5-6 record last year, attendance at Delaware Stadium still held steady at about 20,000, and the facilities at the Ag Barn are among the best in the region. “It’s a smell that means life and nourishment for the majority of people,” Johnson says. “You can’t have an athletic complex next to an agricultural school without having any fallout, shall we say.”


Location North Wilmington, Hockessin

The smell Sweet, moist, suffocating diapers

The perpetrator Mushroom soil. Miracle of agriculture or one of the stankinest concoctions known to man? It’s both—a mixture of straw, horse manure, hay, poultry manure, cottonseed meal and gypsum.

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