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The Dominguez Channel. Image: Jason Koebler

'It Could Take Out a Herd of Rhinoceroses': Bad Smell Terrorizes California City

A ‘noxious odor’ caused by climate change and decaying sea creatures has terrorized Carson, California for two weeks, causing some residents to flee the city.
October 21, 2021, 2:25pm

For the better part of this month, Carson, California, a coastal city in Los Angeles county, has been terrorized by a “foul odor” that has upended the lives of many of its residents and become one of the main topics of conversation in the city of 92,000 people.

How bad is the smell? 

“It could take out a herd of rhinoceroses,” one resident told the mayor and city council at a public hearing about the bad smell last week. “It’s not a mild smell. Fix it!”

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“I am waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning, 4 o’clock in the morning. It is affecting my asthma,” another resident said. “I am not able to go outside for any length of time because I am gagging and nearly throwing up on myself.” She went on to add that her mother drove five hours to visit her, stayed for one hour, and had to leave because the smell was so bad.

Another resident said that her two-month-old baby “has been very colicky and I’m just so upset with the air, and it’s like, we don’t even know what to do anymore. You guys aren’t doing anything to help and it’s very scary for our kids.”

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Public Works and Health Department officials treat the Dominguez Canal. Image: Jason Koebler

How bad is the smell? The city and Los Angeles County are reimbursing some residents who have had to leave the city to stay at hotels in other cities. They are also advising affected residents to buy air purifiers, and are reimbursing those who do. Los Angeles County has advised “anyone who feels their symptoms are life threatening [to] seek immediate medical care.”

How bad is the smell? The city and its lobbyist have petitioned California Governor Gavin Newsom to declare the odor a “state of emergency.” This week, Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán wrote a letter to Newsom saying that he needs to “proclaim a State of Emergency to guide Carson and Los Angeles County through this crisis,” calling the “noxious odor” an “issue of health and environmental injustice” that is causing “nausea, headaches, difficulty breathing, and other unbearable conditions.”

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Southern California has a long and sordid history with noxious fumes and strong smells. The coastal town of El Segundo, just 14 miles from Carson, has been nicknamed “Smell Segundo” because it’s located between the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant and a massive Chevron Facility. In July, 17 million gallons of partially-treated sewage flooded the Pacific Ocean, leading to a “sludge blanket” that left a raw sewage smell in the city for weeks. Anecdotally, based on my visits there, the city can smell like wastewater and/or oil, depending on the winds and whatever industrial process is happening that day. 

Residents in Irwindale, California, about 20 miles east of Los Angeles, have spent years fighting Huy Fong Foods, claiming that fumes coming from the Sriracha hot sauce plant are causing itchy and burning noses, watery eyes, coughing, and other health impacts.

While Irwindale and El Segundo’s fumes are industrial, officials believe that Carson’s odor is natural, though it is fueled by climate change, a slow-motion, science fiction-esque nightmare that has driven people from their homes and is seemingly the product of California's driest year in a generation. 

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“The smell became nearly unbearable on the edge of the water; rather than simply smelling rotten eggs, I felt more like I was inside a rotten egg.”

A full explanation for the smell has not yet been found, Los Angeles County Public Works officials believe that a combination of drought, unfortunate tides, and perhaps “foreign substances” have led to a mass die-off of vegetation and marine life in the Dominguez Channel, a canal that runs from the Pacific Ocean through the Port of Los Angeles and inland through the middle of Carson. This “naturally decaying organic material” is undergoing an anaerobic bacterial breakdown process that is creating hydrogen sulfide, which smells strongly of rotten eggs. 

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The smell first began being reported by residents around October 7, it's only gotten worse. The current theory from residents is that the smell is worst in the middle of the night, when a marine layer (essentially, clouds coming off the Pacific Ocean) traps the smell and allows it to spread throughout the city. “The smell, I can already smell it,” one resident said at around 7 p.m. at the October 11 city council meeting about the odor. “Normally in the evening time it doesn’t come until after midnight.” 

“It seems to stink most at 2, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning when there’s a marine layer,” another resident added.

What also remains unclear is whether the smell is merely a nuisance or a genuine public health threat. Public communication from the city and Los Angeles County have gotten more dire as time has gone on and the smell has gotten worse. 

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A press release called “FOUL ODOR FROM DOMINGUEZ CHANNEL NOT FOUND TO POSE HEALTH THREATS” published October 8 that is still on the front page of the Carson city government website stated that “South Coast Air Quality Management District does not believe the odors will cause any health impacts beyond nuisance type effects.” However, that press release also quotes Carson mayor Lula Davis-Holmes, who said “It is my understanding that prolonged exposure is harmful to humans,” and said that the city “might consider initiating a class action lawsuit” about the smell. 

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The urgency of communications has escalated from there, but remains contradictory. There is now a red box at the top of the website that simply says “Dominguez Channel Odor” that links to a page spun up about the disaster. That page states that the Carson water supply has not been affected by the smell. It also links to information sheets from the county, which says there is “intermittently elevated, but not toxic” levels of hydrogen sulfide. It then goes on to say, alarmingly, that “if symptoms feel life threatening, seek immediate medical care.” It also says residents should “avoid prolonged outdoor activities between the hours of 9 p.m. through 8 a.m. and whenever odors are strong to reduce your exposure.” 

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After watching the initial town hall meeting and reading these notices, I decided to drive to Carson on Wednesday to see if I could smell the smell, and to report what it smells like. I rolled down my windows in Los Angeles rush hour traffic and can report that I did not smell the smell until about the time I reached the “world’s largest Skechers factory outlet,” about two blocks from the channel. 

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Image: Jason Koebler

How bad is the smell? It smelled faintly, but unmistakably, of rotten eggs. The smell got stronger as I passed the channel, and I continued to smell it as I parked my car to take a photo of the Goodyear Blimp Airbase, about a block on the other side of the channel (one of only 25 active blimps on Earth!). I parked my car and walked to the edge of the channel, where a series of Los Angeles Health Department, Los Angeles Public Works, and Los Angeles Police Department vehicles were working to contain the smell. 

The smell became nearly unbearable on the edge of the water; rather than simply smelling rotten eggs, I felt more like I was inside a rotten egg. No debris or marine life was visible from a bridge running over the channel. I spoke briefly to two Public Works officials, who were spraying a liquid from a hose into the channel. They said this was a “deodorizer” designed to get rid of the smell. Both officials agreed that the smell was indeed disgusting and that they hoped it went away soon. Police officers, public works officials, and public health officials were the only people on foot anywhere near the channel. No one was utilizing the bike and pedestrian path that runs alongside the canal.

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I made it home Tuesday evening just in time to catch the beginning of yet another Carson City Council meeting, where the main topic of conversation was the bad smell, how bad it is, whether anyone’s health is at risk, and when the smell would go away. 

I had some technical difficulties streaming the main portion of the meeting that dealt with the Dominguez Channel, though it was a repeated topic of conversation, in between discussion about the local university’s athletics program, a proposed regulation that would reduce emissions of an ozone precursor from nearby industrial plants, and retirement sendoffs.

From what I caught, Los Angeles County Director of Public Works Mark Pestrella said that the deodorizer being sprayed into the channel was an organic compound designed to neutralize the smell and eventually break down. He also said they were going to deploy a series of air purifiers that would hopefully further reduce the smell. He is the one who stated that the department currently believes that a mix of drought, normal die-offs that cause localized hydrogen sulfide smells for a few hours or perhaps a day or two, and that unknown-but-still-under-investigation foreign substances could be causing the smell, though it seems like officials still aren’t positive why the smell is so bad this year. Pestrella added that scientists and engineers are considering injecting “nano bubbles” into the canal to increase oxygen levels in the water that they believe would lead to a healthier waterway overall. 

Pestrella was hopeful that the smell would begin to dissipate over the next several days and would hopefully be gone by the weekend, though he could make no promises. He called it a “terrible incident” and one of the worst environmental disasters his department had dealt with in the last 30 years. “It’s been, I know, a very very difficult time for you and your families and it’s something that weighs heavy on me as a director of the department and as a fellow human being,” Pestrella said.

It is not clear who is really responsible for informing the public about what is happening; there are a lot of communications coming out from both the city and the county, and it seems as though the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works is doing the heavy lifting on the disaster response.

When I asked the city a series of questions about the smell, my request was forwarded to the Los Angeles County Department of Health. A Department of Health spokesperson said they couldn't answer my questions and forwarded my request to the Department of Public Works. The Department of Health spokesperson then asked for my deadline, as though they were going to answer some questions; they then again decided that due to the "extent of [my] questions," Public Works would have to answer them and declined to comment. No Public Works spokesperson ever responded to any of my repeated emails.