New machinery, not human remains, likely cause of thick black smoke over crematorium.

Black smoke has billowed out of a stack at a crematorium in Central Point on three occasions recently, alarming neighbors who wonder whether it might have been human ash.

"It was disrespectful to the people being burned and to everyone else," said Robert Pendrey, who lives on a residential street close to Conger-Morris Funeral Directors on South Front Street. "It kind of had the sweet, sickly smell of human bodies."

The 42-year-old said he noticed ash falling when he saw the smoke coming from the funeral home.

Steve Morris, part-owner of the recently remodeled funeral home, said no human ash escaped from the cremation equipment that was installed just three months ago.

"We had some problems initially," he said. "It's all been resolved. We ran a complete test."

He said he thought the black smoke was unburned natural gas that escaped when the equipment was started.

Tom Peterson, an environmental engineer with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said he inspected the funeral home Tuesday. "They ran through a cremation, and there was essentially no visible emissions from it," he said.

He said he had received a complaint from a neighbor, Cathy Bailey, who also sent pictures of the black smoke spewing out of the crematorium.

During the past three months, smoke from the crematorium exceeded the maximum amounts allowed under Conger-Morris' permit three times.

The last occasion was Sept. 19, and Conger-Morris officials reported the incident to DEQ when they noticed black smoke from the chimney. Peterson said visible smoke shouldn't reach a level of more than 20 percent opacity, but Conger Morris' was at times up to 100 percent opaque.

Peterson said an afterburner that heats up to 1,800 degrees didn't appear to function properly on those occasions. It turned on too quickly, heating up to 2,300 to 2,400 degrees. He said the smoke only came out during the initial phase of the cremation process, when a casket was burning.

During his inspection Tuesday, Peterson said he had operators remove the lid of the cardboard casket after the cremation began to observe what was burning.

"Obviously it was just the casket burning," he said.

The cremation equipment has different settings depending on the type of casket used, such as cardboard, wood or metal. In addition, the machinery is calibrated depending on the size of the body.

Depending on the settings, burners turn on and off at different times and at different temperatures, said Peterson.

He said he couldn't determine whether operator error played a role in the problem or if there was a malfunction with the equipment.

After it was determined the black smoke spewed out when there were two cremations in a day, Peterson said the funeral home will conduct only one a day until a representative from the equipment company can come out in November.

The problem might occur when the cremation machine is already heated up, he said.

Peterson said it is not unusual for industrial sources to emit black smoke when starting up a new piece of machinery, but this is more unusual.

"I can understand why the people close to them would be upset," he said. "I didn't realize how close it was to them."

Pendrey said he noticed the smoke about three weeks ago while barbecuing in his backyard.

"The lady across the street was almost in tears," he said. "Her mother had passed away recently."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.