From migraines to vomiting, residents struggle to live normally through Dominguez Channel odor

Carson resident Liana Navarrete and her family have been living out of a Marriott hotel in Torrance for 13 days now. They moved in after falling sick from a pungent odor from the Dominguez Channel that’s been plaguing the city and surrounding areas since early October.

Liana, 26, and her two children, 4-year-old Ruben Jr. and 7-year-old Lilian Jacobo, are stuck in a two-bed hotel room nearly all day everyday. The stay-at-home mother doesn’t have a driver’s license, and even if she did, her husband takes their only car to work in the city of Commerce.

They eat oatmeal and instant noodles using the hotel room’s coffee maker because there’s no microwave. The mini fridge is just that, mini, so Liana has to replenish it with groceries often.

The kids often get bored as they only have a plastic fishing game, Shark Bite, to play with. Liana will walk them out twice a day to play in the hotel lobby and walk to a nearby Starbucks to get a snack.

After her husband, Ruben, gets “home” from work at around 4 p.m., the family returns to their two-bedroom duplex in Carson to wash their dirty clothes and pick up clean ones.

“We’re paying for a home we can’t even live in,” Ruben said.

Upon returning, the air tastes bitter, like metal, Liana said.

“And it keeps smelling like rotten feet,” Ruben Jr. said in his cute, 4-year-old voice.

Many more residents, still living in the elevated hydrogen sulfide levels, are waiting to be relocated to a hotel by their public officials. Liana was one of the lucky ones, but lucky is far from what she and her family feel.

Residents, businesses, and students living in or around the channel have gagged at the foul odor, or even worse, experienced headaches, nausea, burning eyes, vomiting and other symptoms. Higher-than-normal levels of hydrogen sulfide gas, the source of the rotten-egg smell, have plagued the area since at least Oct. 3.

The Dominguez Channel near the 405 Freeway exit on South Avalon Boulevard and East Dominguez Street on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

How is the government trying to fix it?

Public works employees have taken steps that the county said has drastically reduced the amount of hydrogen sulfide gas emanating from the channel, but even low concentrations of the gas are continuing to create a nuisance for nearby communities.

“We’re clear the odor is causing consistent and real health symptoms like nausea, headaches, throat and eye irritation that is deeply troubling and severely impacting the quality of life for far too many residents,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell said on Tuesday during a meeting.

The county Department of Public Health has conducted door-to-door outreach to more than 8,970 Carson residents, including medically fragile individuals, Mitchell said, as well as reaching out to businesses and schools and manning-related hotline.

The county Department of Public Works has also coordinated with multiple experts and spent an estimated $5.4 million to date on remediation and providing or reimbursing residents for air filters, air purifiers and temporary relocation.

“Even with that, these Herculean efforts have not eliminated the nuisance odor to date,” Mitchell said.

Treatment of the water, which included spraying deodorizer and installing aeration devices, is still ongoing. Los Angeles County Public Works Incident Commander Russ Bryden declined to provide an estimated remediation time, so it’s still unclear when the foul odor will go away. Instead, Bryden said in an emailed statement that the hydrogen sulfide incident “is unparalleled in terms of intensity and duration,” but that the levels are “continuing on a downward trend.”

The stench’s strongest point comes from in Carson near the South Avalon Boulevard exit of the 405 Freeway, but communities in Wilmington, Gardena, Torrance, Redondo Beach and parts of Long Beach have also been impacted by the odor.

As of Wednesday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has received approximately 260 complaints from Long Beach residents about odors over the past month, Nahal Mogharabi, director of communications for the district said via email. In total, they’ve received more than 4,200 complaints, Mogharabi said.

Long Beach Councilman Rex Richardson, who also serves as a South Coast AQMD representative, said if the situation gets worse—if it rises to the level of an emergency in Long Beach—he said, then the city can explore providing vouchers for relocation or reimbursement assistance, just like the city of Carson did.

But based on the lower levels of hydrogen sulfide recorded and fewer complaints from Long Beach residents, “it’s not heading in the direction of escalation,” he said.

Monitoring results and residential complaints continue to make clear that “the ground-zero is in the city of Carson,” Richardson said.

‘Nothing you can do’

Before relocating to a hotel, Liana was the first to have it really bad: migraines, burning nose, diarrhea, nausea and a skin rash on the left side of her face. Her doctor suggested to her to see an allergist as she might be allergic to hydrogen sulfide, she said. When she felt tightness in her chest, she’d use her son’s inhaler.

At nights, the family would all sleep in one bedroom, pairs taking turns on the bed and the floor.

“I would cry because there’s nothing you can do,” Liana said.

From left to right, P’Aire Williams, 8, Bel-Ayre Robbins, 33, Egypt Robbins, 1, Justyn II Robbins, 3, Justyn Robbins, 32, and Harlei Robbins, 2, stand for a portrait outside of their home in Carson on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. The family waited more than two weeks booked to have the county book a hotel room for them, Bel-Ayre said. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

Bel-Ayre Robbins, a 33-year-old who is five months pregnant, bears the burning nose and eyes at her Carson home. Her husband is a disabled veteran, and they care for 1-, 2-, 3- and 8-year-old kids and two dogs. They couldn’t afford to pay out-of pocket for a hotel and wait for reimbursement, especially since they’ve already spent $700 for an air purifier.

The county finally booked Robbins and her family on Tuesday for a hotel in Downtown Long Beach after being waitlisted more than two weeks. However, she’s unsure if the hotel will take her two dogs.

“This is beginning to get ridiculous,” Robbins said about the wait time.

One of her dogs is losing patches of its hair that her veterinarian calls “hot spots.” Robbins has already picked up her 3-year-old son twice from a local daycare, Elite Beyond Child, because he vomited. Each time this happens, her son needs to get a COVID-19 test with a negative result before returning.

“It’s just kind of just become a norm of not feeling good,” she said.

Another resident, Fa’auliulito Meni, 56, and her father initially refused to relocate as she lived just around the corner from her job teaching third and fourth graders at Del Amo Elementary, despite her symptoms from the hydrogen sulfide: nose bleeds, fatigue and headaches. She’d endure it for her convenience to work, she said in an interview two weeks ago.

From left to right, P’Aire Williams, 8, Bel-Ayre Robbins, 33, Egypt Robbins, 1, Justyn II Robbins, 3, Justyn Robbins, 32, and Harlei Robbins, 2, stand for a portrait outside of their home in Carson on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. The family waited more than two weeks booked to have the county book a hotel room for them, Bel-Ayre said. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

But a week later, Fa’auliulito relocated to the Marriott Hotel at the Los Angeles International Airport. During a phone call last Thursday, she sounded raspy. She still spends more than eight hours teaching kids in Carson—not able to escape the stench fully.

Her sister, Ana, and her husband were the first in the household to leave. They packed their bags mid-October and have been staying at a Holiday Inn in Long Beach. She visits her father, Tauatele, to drop off his medications and check on him from time to time, but becomes sick every time she does.

Angered at the ongoing odor, Ana, who is running for Carson City Clerk, joined seven other residents in a lawsuit against a warehousing and beauty supply company that alleges that the company negligently left tall stacks of pallets and cardboard boxes containing highly flammable, ethanol-based hand sanitizer, which later flowed into the channel following a fire at the warehouse on Sept. 30.

Like a captain of a ship, 81-year-old Tauatele Meni stays behind his Carson home to stand guard on his property as his relatives flee the horrific stench from the nearby channel.

“My family has been in this community for almost 50 years, and this has never happened before,” Fa’auliulito said. She said she’s disappointed in the remediation time from her local public officials.

Tanya Cruz, 59, stands for a portrait outside of her home in Carson about a mile away from the Dominguez Channel on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

Tanya Cruz, 59, stays with her husband and two adult children at their house about a mile west of the Dominguez Channel, and has struggled with relocation assistance because they own three dogs and four cats, and not all hotels can accommodate them.

“They’re not accepting us,” Cruz said.

Cruz lives paycheck to paycheck to maintain their mortgage, so paying out of pocket is not feasible for them.

In the meantime, she said her hair is falling out and she coughs up green mucus.

“Even our own physicians don’t know what to do for us, and that’s scary,” she said.

City News Service contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a statement from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. The number of days that Liana Navarrete and her family stayed in a hotel has also been updated.

Residents sue over foul smell in Dominguez Channel, alleging fire released harmful chemicals

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Crystal Niebla is the West Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of her grant-funded position with the Post. If you want to support Crystal's work, you can donate to her Report For America position at lbpost.com/support.
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