Rotten smell causes safety concerns Downtown 

click to enlarge William Beranek Jr., chair of the Marion County Local Emergency Planning Committee highlighted the health concerns: "We have [had] up to 100 false alarms where the gas company and fire department are going out." - MARK LEE
  • William Beranek Jr., chair of the Marion County Local Emergency Planning Committee highlighted the health concerns: "We have [had] up to 100 false alarms where the gas company and fire department are going out."
  • Mark Lee

For more than 20 years, downtown Indy has been sporadically inundated with an intense odor resembling that of natural gas. Believed by many to radiate from Metalworking Lubricants, a company that produces industrial oils, compounds, greases and other products, the odor has resulted in numerous calls to local officials.

The company, located at 1509 S. Senate Ave., is situated within five minutes of Lucas Oil Stadium and within three miles of Riley Hospital for Children and Emmerich Manual High School.

The long-time formal position of Metalworking Lubricants is that it is not responsible for the odor. Company officials offered no comment when approached for this story.

"It's pretty difficult when [they] say that it's other people, and everyone that they say it is we know that it's not," William Beranek Jr., chair of the Marion County Local Emergency Planning Committee, said.

"But they've been successful at delaying any action for all these years, so their strategy is working."

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is currently considering public input on the matter as it processes the company's Federally Enforceable State Operating Permit renewal request.

"Public comments may force us to go back and reevaluate something in the permit," Robert Elstro, an IDEM spokesman, said. "We keep an eye open to if it's being talked about in the newspaper, if there's a lot of comments that have come in, what the comments are talking about."

The odor has "plagued the city ... for probably close to 20 years," said Kevin Mouser, an environmental manager in IUPUI's Office of Environmental Health and Safety, recalling one of the first efforts on campus to identify the source of the smell, when a university fire chief traced it back to Metalworking Lubricants.

"Since then, I have investigated dozens, if not hundreds, of similar complaints on campus and have traced that back numerous times to that facility," Mouser said. "From my perspective, there's no question about the source of that odor. There are other professional individuals who have been involved in those investigations that have come to that same conclusion."

A public safety issue

The odor leads to frequent requests from citizens for investigation and emergency response, including several instances in which the fire department is dispatched.

"When the circumstances are right [the] odor will frequently make it to the IUPUI campus, to the Lilly campus, through downtown Indianapolis," Mouser said. "When it does, a large number of people mistake that odor for a natural gas leak so it leads to ... lots of problems."

Beranek sees the drain on emergency resources associated with the odor as a detriment to public safety.

"We've got lots of false alarms going off," Beranek said. "We have [had] up to 100 false alarms where the gas company and fire department are going out."

The resulting calls "cause emergency response to be shifted, and not be in its optimal configuration," he explained.

Such a scenario played out at the IUPUI campus.

"Our very first incident, we had so many complaints that we couldn't actually document it," Mouser said. "We had what I would consider to be a crisis on campus. We were getting so many natural gas complaints that our office couldn't investigate each and every one."

Crying (stinky) wolf

In Beranek's eyes, the false alarms may develop a sense of complacency among people who have become accustomed to the smell.

"One of those could be a real one ... that could be an explosion and kill people, he said." We could have people close to the plant that have a natural gas leak in their house, but because they know Metalworking Lubricants has an odor from time to time ... not report it to the gas company or the fire department and then possibly have people seriously hurt.

"My worry is the false alarm and the fact that for many people we've lost the ability to have protection because they know that odor is probably not natural gas."

Sarah Holsapple, spokesperson for Citizens Energy Group, says her company has received complaints as well.

"There have been times in the past when we've received phone calls from residents and other companies near Metalworking Lubricants reporting natural gas, so we'll go and investigate and determine that it's actually not natural gas, it's an odor coming from the company," Holsapple said. "It happens quarterly, probably four times a year."

Potential health risks?

According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, hydrogen sulfide is a colorless, flammable, extremely hazardous gas with a "rotten egg" smell. It is both an irritant and a chemical asphyxiant. High levels of exposure can result in immediate effects, which may include shock, convulsions, inability to breathe, unconsciousness, coma and death. OSHA standards for general industry exposure shall not exceed 20 parts per million.At the time of Strong's measurement, particle presence at the facility was in excess of OSHA's standard for industrial employee safety. The company was, however, still within the 2010 EPA standard of 75 parts per billion ceiling for public exposure.

Opinions on the health risks of Indy's noisome nuisance are split. According to Beranek, concentrations typically found in the city air aren't likely to be noxious.

Sources at IUPUI, however, are concerned.

"When we get complaints [people] on campus will also frequently complain of headaches, hives, respiratory irritation, things like that," Mouser said. "We've actually also had people complain of being nauseated by it. People's sensitivity to odors vary; the concentration of that odor varies from time to time."

Richard Strong is executive director of IUPUI's Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

"On Nov. 19, 2012, early evening, I took a call from IU Health security," Strong said. "They had reports of gas odors in Riley and University Hospital and they had been investigating, but they had not found anything. They asked if we could investigateƉ I went to Riley Hospital with instruments for measuring air quality and found nothing. Wind direction was from Metalworking Lubricant's direction so I drove to the facility and measured hydrogen sulfide levels of 24 parts per million. This is way above acceptable levels."

He added: "Has anyone been monitoring air releases around the site? If not, why not? If they have, what have they found?"

No stranger to mishaps

The company is no stranger to environmental controversy. It is responsible for an incident in which 25,000 gallons of used oil spilled out of an above-ground tank in September of 2010 in Indianapolis, requiring the disposal of 850 tons of polluted soil. Despite the volume of the spill, IDEM reported no toxic material releases into the sewer system, or any nearby water sources.

IDEM is scheduled to complete the Metalworking Lubricants permit draft by early August, according to the agency's website. When the draft is complete, IDEM will solicit public feedback, Elstro said, noting requests for hearings are granted on a case-by-case basis.

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