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Chemical spill in Compton area spurs hundreds of complaints of lingering gas-like odors

Compton City Hall.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Air quality officials have cited a land developer and contractor over a chemical spill in the Compton area that has generated hundreds of complaints of lingering gas-like odors across a large area of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued citations Friday alleging that developer Bridge Point Gardena Land and contractor OFRS Inc. caused a public nuisance in violation of rules governing the release of air contaminants.

The air district said the spill occurred Thursday at a job site in an empty lot and was caused by an attempt to move a small storage tank containing mercaptan, a pungent chemical odorant added to natural gas to help with leak detection. Fire officials said the site was an abandoned oil field near South Main Street and Rosecrans Avenue in an unincorporated area near Compton.

The South Coast district said it has received more than 220 odor complaints from residents and schools in more than a dozen communities, including parts of Los Angeles, Compton, Carson, Paramount, Lakewood and Long Beach and as far away as Anaheim, more than 15 miles east of the spill.

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“Mercaptan is sulfur-based and foul-smelling,” according to a South Coast air district news release. “It is also potent — a few drops can cause odors that carry for significant distances.”

For people in the area, the foul odors came on top of poor air quality from wildfire smoke that has blanketed much of the state.

Jason Sanchez, 23, a Cal State Fullerton student who lives in Norwalk, said he smelled a “strong, gas-like odor” almost all day Friday. When the windows were open, “it was almost as if someone left the knob turned a little on a stove on accident, or opened the oven, letting that gas smell run out.”

OFRS was working to clear the site when it “encountered a small, disconnected steel vessel and, after a visual inspection and upon moving it, approximately two gallons of residual fluid released from a small hole,” Randy Balik, executive vice president of the Signal Hill-based company, said in an emailed statement. The fluid was mercaptan and “was not previously known to be on site.”

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“We apologize for any inconvenience the odor resulting from the spill may have had on our neighbors and are working in concert with all pertinent departments, agencies and regulators to properly dispose of the material and eliminate the odor as soon as possible,” Balik said.

Bridge Point Gardena Land could not be reached for comment.

The violation notices can result in civil penalties or a lawsuit if no settlement is reached.

Firefighters responded to a reported gas leak at 11:20 a.m. Thursday but instead found a small spill of mercaptan that sent a natural gas-like smell “permeating the immediate area and areas downwind to the east,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Ron Haralson said in a news release.

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Haralson said that “the smell is not a gas leak and poses no fire or health concern,” but that as a precaution, nearby residents may want to remain indoors until the lingering odors dissipate. He said the spill has been stopped and the tank containing mercaptan is scheduled to be removed Monday.

Air district inspectors who were dispatched to the site detected strong mercaptan odors but were not able to estimate the amount that spilled. They used hand-held monitors and detected no natural gas but collected samples that were taken to a lab for analysis.

Mercaptan was one of the chemicals released during a months-long Aliso Canyon methane gas leak in late 2015 and early 2016 that sickened and displaced thousands in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Porter Ranch and surrounding communities.


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