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Harmontown residents breathe a smelly sigh of relief

By Anna Gibbs and Devna Bose

The Oxford Eagle

Residents of Harmontown have been in a smelly situation for the past two and a half months.

CenterPoint Solutions, a company that mixes an odorant called ethyl mercaptan into natural gas, has a site on County Road 515 in Harmontown, where a spill has left soil contaminated with the undiluted odorant.

CenterPoint mixes the chemical into what is currently the only natural gas pipeline serving Oxford, Taylor, Water Valley and the surrounding communities. Because natural gas companies are not legally required to put odorants in their products, companies like CenterPoint are contracted to mix in the additive for distribution.

Natural gas itself is extremely flammable and, if one inhales a high quantity, can cause unconsciousness and potentially be fatal. Because natural gas is colorless and odorless, additives like ethyl mercaptan are added to give the gas a smell. When it is mixed into the natural gas, it is extremely diluted, but in the open air, the smell is potent.

“The odorant is very good at what it does,” CenterPoint’s Oxford manager Jody McDougal said. “It takes a miniscule amount to do what it does.”

Mike Sanders, who lives across from the site, says the smell began in the second week of October, when workers from CenterPoint brought 55 gallon drums of ethyl mercaptan to the site to refill the tanks. After they left, he says 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.

“Are you smelling the odorant or are you smelling a natural gas leak?” he said. “You don’t know. That’s my whole point with this.”

While Sanders thinks the smell might come from a leak in the ethyl mercaptan pipes, CenterPoint employees say that is not the cause.

“We were attempting to deliver some odorant to the site and transfer it to the tank,” 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 the main pipeline. Sanders says 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 says they were not removed until a week later.

The smell, which was supposed to dissipate after the contaminated soil was removed, is still extremely noticeable, often causing headaches in people who come near the site.

Alicia Dixon, head of media relations for CenterPoint, says safe operations are a “priority” for the company and says they are working to fix the issue.

“We’ve ordered a biodegradable enzyme designed to eat the odorant,” Dixon said. “And we’re going to replace the filter on the pipeline itself.”

As far as environmental and health issues are concerned, Dixon and McDougal say ethyl mercaptan, even though it smells like highly-concentrated rotten eggs, is not dangerous to inhale and does not cause environmental damage.

However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies of 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.

CenterPoint workers are slated to distribute the odor-neutralizing enzyme and replace the pipeline’s filter this Saturday. Next week, another heavy duty natural gas pipeline is expected to open near the Denmark community, so McDougal says some of the pressure should be off of the Harmontown pipeline, which was constructed in the late 1940s.

If the smell does not dissipate, Dixon says they will keep working to fix the problem.

“Safe operations are a priority for us,” she said. “We’re not going to stop. We’re committed to making things right.”