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Mysterious stench of rotting fish driving people from their homes in Christchurch

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A stench of rotting fish and dead animals that’s pervaded several Christchurch suburbs for almost two years is forcing people to sell their homes. 

The putrid smell has residents in Bromley, Woolston and Linwood barricading themselves behind closed doors to avoid it. Opening a window risks the smell seeping into clothes, curtains and furniture.

Sick of the stink dominating her life and complaints to authorities being ignored, Bromley woman Catharina van Herwaarden, 73, has taken matters into her own hands.

Van Herwaarden has gone door-to-door to ask the community for their support, garnering almost 300 signatures backing her complaint to the city council and Environment Canterbury (ECan) and demanding action.

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There is just one problem – no-one can put their finger on the source of the smell.

Theories range from rotting seaweed and sewage to the Living Earth composting site and seafood plants.

Catharina van Herwaarden says she feels like a prisoner in her own home and doesn't like to go outside because of a stench that has lingered in her suburb for almost two years.

STACY SQUIRES/STUFF

Catharina van Herwaarden says she feels like a prisoner in her own home and doesn’t like to go outside because of a stench that has lingered in her suburb for almost two years.

“It just goes over the whole neighbourhood,” the retired carer told Stuff.

“Nobody really knows where it comes from. People have so many different opinions – it’s very hard to pinpoint.”

It is there almost every day, she said, wind or no wind, summer or winter, rain or shine.

“It smells like rotten fish, poo, pee, dead animals and when the rubbish bins have been emptied.

“It’s sour on your lips when you taste it and makes you gag, and if you get it on your hands it sticks to your skin.”

“I feel like a prisoner in my own house.”

The stench is no myth. ECan has recorded 337 “pollution events” or complaints, about odour in the area since January 2018, almost one every two days. Of those, 55 were “substantiated”, an ECan spokesman said.

Van Herwaarden, who has lived in the heart of Bromley since 2012 after her Burwood home was ruined in the earthquakes, first noticed the stench in early 2018 and started recording its appearance that July.

“By that time it was really bad. I used to read and do gardening, but I couldn’t sit outside.”

Her endless complaints – she estimates about 100 to both the city council and ECan, mainly through an app she was urged to use – have been fruitless.

Some, she claims, were brushed off with a dismissal of “it’s only Bromley”.

Residents have become so fed up that some have sold up, van Herwaarden said.

“My next door neighbour sold a year ago because of the smell and I want to move as well. Others I spoke to only bought their house three or four years ago and want to move, but can’t.”

With its seafood processors, wastewater ponds, compost facility, high density of industrial facilities and the nearby Avon-Heathcote Estuary, Bromley is no stranger to foul pongs.

In 2016 Living Earth, which operates the council’s composting facility, was fined along with the council for an offensive smell that plagued residents and force a school to close, triggering promises of increased monitoring.

The Living Earth compost plant in Bromley has been the source of unwelcome smells in the past. (file photo)

DAVID WALKER/STUFF

The Living Earth compost plant in Bromley has been the source of unwelcome smells in the past. (file photo)

Linwood councillor Yani Johanson said the issue is a longstanding concern that is regularly brought up at community board meetings, but little is done.

“ECan needs to take air quality odour issues more seriously and needs more resources going into it,” he said.

“The issue of odour and health has been really frustrating for so many people in my area. It’s not acceptable that people have to keep complaining to get action on these things.

“ECan should be monitoring it, they should be enforcing it and find out where these things are happening.”

Zone manager Andy Barbati-Ross said ECan – which has legal responsibility for managing odours – is aware of the depth of residents’ concerns and admitted the “current way of managing the problem was “not as effective as they could be”.

A new reporting method for smells that was introduced last year remains in the testing phase, but ECan promised to work more closely with the city council to address odour problems.

But van Herwaarden wants action now, and will present her petition to authorities to demand it.

“I want them to stop the smell. We have had it for two years but never before, so what has changed?

“If somebody has done something wrong to make it smell I want them to pay, because we have suffered for two years.”

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