Why does Milwaukee smell sometimes?

Milwaukee smells. This is just an undeniable fact. The source of that smell, however, is a bit elusive.

“Every now and then, especially on windy days, the campus smells like rotten fish,” said Ethan Niquet, a senior in the College of Communication. “They should really do something about that.”

The city’s scent has been compared to a wet dog, rotten broccoli and various other pungent odors. Students point to a multitude of culprits for the smell, including the sewerage district, the breweries and Lake Michigan.

The reality of the stench, however, is complicated.

“I’d hate to even take a guess because it could be a variety of things causing the smell,” said Bill Graffin, spokesman for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. The MMSD is responsible for investigating odor complaints.

“There’s an algae from Lake Michigan that smells like rotten eggs and sewage,” Graffin said. “There’s a burnt toast smell coming from the freeway. There’s a lot of smells in Milwaukee.”

MMSD serves 28 communities but only investigates foul odors when formal complaints are lodged.

Graffin said he has never received an odor complaint from the Marquette community in the 10 years he has worked for MMSD. To determine the exact cause of the smell surrounding Marquette’s campus, a complaint would need to be filed while the smell is happening.

Though periodic odors may be detected in the valley, the Milwaukee Health Department has not received complaints in several years since the major offenders left or implemented extensive in-plant controls. There are no current investigations underway.

As frustrating as it may seem, there really is no one clear cause of the smell of Milwaukee. Students may be relieved to learn that the smell of the city improved greatly during the past few decades.

Paul Biedrzycki, director of environmental health for the City of Milwaukee, said the Menominee Valley historically had many odor producing industries like tanneries, stockyards and chemical companies. Most of these facilities either relocated or went out of business in the past two decades.

Biedrzycki also said the region is naturally prone to bad smells.

“The Valley’s unique geographic landscape made it prone to periodic temperature inversions that effectively captured odors and other airborne contaminants close to the surface,” Biedrzycki said in an email. “Prevailing winds and the presence of Lake Michigan also create unique dynamics in terms of odor trajectory in the Valley.”

For this reason, it would be perfectly accurate to say that the smell is just part of the city’s character.

Even if the scent does not necessarily make sense, students at Marquette can embrace it as just part of their Milwaukee experience.

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