Nauseating Notoriety: The Smell of the St. Johns

Christina Kelso

Photo by Michelle Stevens

There is no doubt that Jacksonville, Fla. is not a city lacking of smells. Whether a set of nostrils are traveling over the Matthews Bridge or throughout the Jacksonville University campus, there are moments where they are likely to recoil. For a number of years, the city has earned itself a pungent reputation.

Speculation and blame for the city’s nauseating notoriety has been blamed on a history of paper mills, broken septic tanks and the corporate pollution of the St. Johns, the truth of this lying somewhere within the mix.

“From a historical perspective, I grew up in Jacksonville back in the sixties and it [the smell] used to be a lot worse because we had a paper mill,” said Deborah Venn, database manager for the St. Johns River Keeper. “The one thing I do know is it is a lot better than it was.”

This improvement is due to an anti-odor campaign, enacted by the city of Jacksonville in the 1980s which increased fines for company odor violations drastically in order to phase out the problem. However, while the air of Jacksonville has toned down, it has gone through more of a transformation than elimination.

In recent years, noses and thoughts have turned towards a grotesque aroma emitted by a number of Jacksonville waterways, mostly those branching from the St. Johns River.

For Jacksonville University, an institution situated along the river, this issue is still prevalent and spurs the ever present, inevitable discussion of the water’s reek. Hosting students and faculty from around the world as well as local areas, the school is a hotspot for opinion on the smell, ranging on both sides of the spectrum.

“I’m originally from New York,” said freshman Valerie Ortiz. “I moved to Jacksonville in 02’ and to be honest I have never really noticed the smell of it (the river).”

“What does the St. Johns River smell like to me? Ha! Funny, funny question; the St. Johns river smells like the Jacksonville Zoo uses it as a toilet,” said junior Daniel Holmes. “I mean, whoa. My friend Brent jumped in that thing before and hit the bottom, nothing but muck. Yeah, I have to say, it smells like one giant broken toilet.”

This rendition, while humorous, may not be far from the truth. According to the website of the St. Johns River Keeper, 50 rivers and streams branching off of the St. Johns were on the state Department of Environmental Protection’s impaired rivers list. These possess consistently high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, found in the intestines and waste of humans and other mammals. A 2005 Florida Times Union article reports that this is due to failure of a number of Jacksonville’s estimated 170,000 septic tanks as well as water treatment plants.

This references only one problem, Jacksonville’s water also contains pesticides, herbicides and other pollutants which not only add to the smell but make many fish species unsafe for consumption due to pollutants in their tissues.

It is clear that the issue of the city’s smell is one which runs deeper than a superficial desire to scrunch one’s nose. The curious odor turns out to be more than a minor nuisance to those who live and commute around Jacksonville’s waterways and septic systems. It sinks into a concerning matter of environmental and population health.