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Does your neighborhood smell... nice? Kansas City is trying to better target stinky sewers

 Low angle photograph shows a street curb with an opening leading to a sewer. Traffic is seen in the background coming toward the sewer.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Traffic flows past a sewer drain at Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Woodland Avenue on Thursday morning, July 20, 2023.

Kansas City has been putting odor blockers in the sewers for over 20 years. But the city is now strategically placing the devices based on data and residents’ complaints.

If you’ve noticed that the sewers in your neighborhood have gone from particularly smelly to an almost sweet scent, you’re not alone.

In Kansas City’s combined sewer system, sewage and runoff flow together. In times of high heat with little rain, the sewage doesn’t flow well and begins to stink. For about 25 years, the city has been using “Sewer Block” to mask the stench that wafts up from the sewers.

City Manager Brian Platt says that while the city has been using the blocks for decades, residents may have only just now noticed the pleasant smell because workers are now placing them in targeted areas where the city’s received complaints.

The round blocks come in a mesh bag containing a literal block with a chemical inside that reduces mold, mildew and insects while breaking down some odors with a perfume-like smell. Like Febreze — but for sewers.

“We're being a little bit more thoughtful and targeted with some of the things that we've got ... to make sure that we're using them appropriately,” Platt said. “One other big reason why things probably smell better is because we're doing a lot more preventative maintenance and using more data to understand exactly where the issues are in our sewers and our water systems.”

In April of last year, voters approved a $750 million sewer bond that helps maintain, repair and upgrade the city’s sewer system. Those improvements will also help target stagnant sewage and eliminate the bad smells in the long term. Part of the bond money will also be used to help improve the city’s waterways and get the city’s sewer system to meet federal and state regulations that lower the pollution in waterways.

“It's mostly the residential and business connections that feed into the sewer that create a lot of those issues,” Platt said. “However, our waterways are a big part of the odor.”

In the meantime, the city is adding odor blockers to the sewers based on 311 complaints. The blocks are hung from the top of the sewer by the mesh bag. They dissolve over time and are replaced after a month or two.

You can submit a 311 complaint about the sewer or storm water through the myKCMO app or by calling to report an issue at 311 or (816) 513-1313.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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