In the middle of May, Debby Florence began noticing a disturbing smell in her Northside neighborhood.
“I became concerned, because I thought it smelled like natural gas,” Florence says. “My neighbors noticed it, too.”
In the days that followed, the smell came and went. Some nights the odor was so powerful that it woke Florence up. She worried that it indicated contaminants in the air that could affect her and her 12-year-old son.
Florence reported her concerns to NorthWestern Energy, which investigated. Despite receiving roughly 20 similar complaints from North and Westside residents during the past several weeks, company spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch says NorthWestern hasn’t found a problem in its local delivery lines.
In response to the complaints—Westsiders as recently as June 14 reported detecting an aroma akin to propane or natural gas in the neighborhood—the Missoula Fire Department and the City-County Health Department are working to identify the odor and its origins. Missoula Air Quality Specialist Ben Schmidt says thus far they don’t have a definitive source. “Chasing odors is really difficult,” he says.
Investigators have hypothesized that vapors from Emerald Services, an oil storage and recycling facility on Phillips Street, are responsible for some of the complaints, says Missoula Fire Marshall Gordy Hughes. “The crews have been on several calls there as of late,” he says. “One that keeps coming in with the description of possible natural gas odor...We have been receiving other calls of chemical odors in the area that were traced back to the recycling facility, Emerald.”
When asked whether Emerald is the culprit, Schmidt says that during recent visits to the facility, he’s noted only a “normal” oily smell. “I actually didn’t find anything that would be considered a public nuisance, as far as odors go,” Schmidt says.
Susan Thoman, from Emerald’s corporate office in Seattle, acknowledges that the Missoula facility received an “odiferous load” of oil in April. “It was isolated,” Thoman says. “And we dealt with that immediately.”
Aside from that, Thoman hasn’t seen any evidence to indicate the recycling facility is responsible for the ongoing complaints.
In light of the unanswered questions, Schmidt says the health department will continue investigating. If the department finds an environmental health problem, it has authority to require corrective action. The challenge comes from definitively pinpointing the source.
As the health department works to track the odor, Florence and her neighbors will be left wondering what, exactly, is blowing through their neighborhood. “I don’t know what’s safe and what’s not safe,” Florence says.