OXFORD, Miss. — People in a northern Mississippi community have been living with a chemical stench that causes headaches.
CenterPoint Solutions mixes an odorant called ethyl mercaptan into natural gas. The company has a site in the Harmontown community, outside Oxford, where a spill has left soil contaminated with the undiluted odorant, the Oxford Eagle reported.
Natural gas is colorless and odorless, so additives like ethyl mercaptan are added to give the gas a rotten-egg smell. When it is mixed into the natural gas, the odorant is extremely diluted. But in the open air, the smell is potent.
Mike Sanders, who lives near the company’s Harmontown site, says the smell began the second week of October, when workers from CenterPoint brought 55 gallon drums of ethyl mercaptan to the site to refill tanks. He said that after they left, the smell grew unbearable.
“When you smell a gas leak in your community, you’re smelling it diluted to parts per million,” Sanders said. “Out here, this is the pure stuff, pure ethyl mercaptan.”
Sanders added that the foul-smelling gas has permeated his home and vehicle and caused his family to suffer from headaches, but his real concern is that people might not be able to tell whether the smell is from the chemical or from a gas leak.
While Sanders thinks the smell might come from a leak in the ethyl mercaptan pipes, CenterPoint employees said that is not the cause.
“We were attempting to deliver some odorant to the site and transfer it to the tank,” CenterPoint’s Oxford manager Jody McDougal said. “Some spilled on the ground, contaminating the soil and causing that concentrated smell.”
A month after the original incident and Sanders’ initial complaint, five employees, including McDougal, visited the site and decided to excavate near pipes outside of the fenced-in area surrounding a pipeline. Sanders said the employees hand-excavated around the pipes before ultimately bringing in machinery and digging up about 500 gallons of what they deemed contaminated soil.
The 55-gallon drums of soil were supposed to be removed by an environmental firm and disposed of in a specialized landfill on Dec. 5, but Sanders said the removal happened a week later.
The smell, which was supposed to dissipate after the contaminated soil was removed, was still noticeable in late December, often causing headaches in people near the site.
Alicia Dixon, head of media relations for CenterPoint, said safe operations are a “priority” for the company.
“We’ve ordered a biodegradable enzyme designed to eat the odorant,” Dixon said.
She said a filter on the pipeline also was being replaced.
Dixon and McDougal said ethyl mercaptan is not dangerous to inhale and does not cause environmental damage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that human volunteers, exposed at 4 parts per million of ethyl mercaptan for three hours daily for 5 to 10 days, have reported adverse effects like altered taste, periodic nausea, mucous membrane irritation and fatigue as a result of inhalation of the chemical.