Over the last few years, I have spent a lot of the time on the road, including driving from Washington, D.C. to Dallas, TX and back.  Not being one for traffic or being ready to leave on time, I typically end up driving through the night.  This combination has put me on Interstate 81 in the Roanoke, Virginia area, typically late at night.

The first time through this area I noticed a fairly strong mothball odor.  I rolled down my windows and took several deep breaths.  Next time I was at a computer, I searched for any industrial sources near that stretch of highway.  I found one source that seemed to fit the bill, Koppers, Inc. in Salem, Virginia.  This seemed like a fairly likely source for the mothball odor.  My hunch seemed all-but-confirmed when I looked at the toxic release inventory for the site, which indicates over 5000 pounds of creosote air emissions as well as a few reported pounds of PAHs.

I noticed this same smell on several more trips through this area.  I also spoke to a local environmental group and asked whether anyone there had notice any odor or mothball odors near Salem or associated with the Koppers facility there.  Despite my experience, they were not aware of any reports of odors.  

So, on a recent trip down to North Carolina, I decided to get off I-81 and check out the Koppers facility and surrounding area for odors.  This time, it was the middle of the afternoon, and this time, there were no odors, not even when I went up to the fence line of the facility.  Nothing at all.  Needless to say, this surprised me.  So when I returned form North Carolina, I made sure to drive through at night.  Before I was off the highway, the odor was there.  As I drove through Salem, the smell thickened, and when I pulled up to the Koppers plant, the air was thick with a mothball fog.

I am not sure whether this bothers or concerns the neighbors.  But there are certainly people living near the facility, and some living directly adjacent.  Perhaps there are multiple lessons that this investigation provides, but the one that I want to highlight is that the it strongly appears that emissions from this facility are dependent on the time of day.  As the operators said at the chemical plant I worked at, “we only do that on graveyard.”  Perhaps this facility is poisoning its neighbors, but they will never know it, unless they get hungry for a midnight snack!

Here are the photos that I took that night of the plant.  Despite the poor conditions, I think that these photos still are worth a thousand words.