‘This is just the beginning’: AQMD ramps up investigation into ships causing foul coastal odors

Have you noticed a random rotten egg smell or gas odor? The South Coast Air Quality Management District says the alleged culprits could be floating in the harbor.

Inspectors are looking into possible air quality violations for ships in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles after a two-million-barrel crude oil tanker was cited this month as one potential source of foul orders wafting along the coast.

The Nave Photon tanker berthed in Long Beach was issued a violation for fugitive emissions when inspectors found seven out of 10 pressure valves were leaking excessive levels of hydrocarbon vapors, which can smell like rotten eggs or sulfur water.

The discovery came following an extensive, two-year investigation by the AQMD to find the sources of periodic mystery odors reported in Long Beach, Seal Beach and Huntington Beach.

While the agency normally investigates businesses on land, AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said inspectors are now scrutinizing ships in the ports as part of a “large and ongoing” investigation into coastal odors. The type of violation for the Nave Photon last week marked the AQMD’s first for a ship.

“This is just the beginning,” Atwood said.

The investigation shines light on an area that typically sees little oversight, as ships are not regularly inspected for air quality violations, Atwood said.

Under AQMD rules, facilities are responsible for inspecting their own equipment to make sure they comply with all regulations. The agency relies on help from fire departments, the U.S. Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol to identify odors and capture air samples.

“We don’t have the resources to inspect every facility or go on every ship, but we will respond if we receive a complaint or odor report,” Atwood said.

A MYSTERY STINK

Since January 2016, the AQMD has received more than 2,000 reports from Orange County to Long Beach for an occasional mystery stink of petroleum, sulfur or chemicals, baffling inspectors as they struggled to identify a source.

Natural gas smells have even prompted emergency evacuations in Downtown Long Beach office buildings in recent years due to the unknown source.

Air samples showed higher levels of chemical compounds indicative of an odor source from crude oil or unprocessed natural gas, the agency said. Crude oil contains hydrocarbon and sulfur gases that can be released to the atmosphere if not properly contained.

While the levels found in the majority of the samples were not expected to cause major health problems, the agency said the odors could cause short-term symptoms like headaches and dizziness.

One air sample collected by Huntington Beach firefighters in June measured elevated levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. But Atwood said it’s not possible to tell whether the level was toxic since the sample was captured in a jar and acute exposure levels are measured from one-hour concentrations.

IDENTIFYING A CULPRIT

Inspectors began tracking the Nave Photon on Oct. 26 after receiving complaints of a petroleum smell in Long Beach. Based on the location of the ship, which was upwind from the complaints, and gas images showing vapor leaks, inspectors boarded the ship on Nov. 3 and used handheld analyzers to detect hydrocarbon levels.

The agency issued a Notice of Violation to GAC North America’s Long Beach office, which is the shipping agent for the Nave Photon.

AQMD officials said representatives of the Tesoro terminal where the ship was berthed would contact the ship owner to ensure the valves are repaired.

As of Friday, the Hong Kong-flagged tanker, which transports crude oil from the Middle East to the U.S., was anchored in Long Beach inside the breakwater just south of the Queen Mary. It’s not clear whether the ship was still leaking vapors.

A GAC spokesperson this week confirmed that the company had received the violation but declined further comment.

Atwood said the AQMD will likely try to reach an out-of-court settlement with GAC for a monetary penalty. The company could also be required to do some type of environmental project, he added.

David Pettit, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Fund who specializes in environmental cases, said a monetary fine is little deterrent for big corporations.

“It’s the cost of doing business,” he said.

Heather Tomley, acting managing director of planning and environmental affairs for the Port of Long Beach, said the port doesn’t have the authority to inspect ships or enforce air quality rules, but it does work with the AQMD to inform ships about the regulations.

Atwood said the violation can serve as a deterrent for other ships.

“We hope that other shipping companies will be more careful following the rules,” he said. “Because this not only affects odors, it increases air pollution.”

Residents who detect foul odors along the coast or anywhere within SCAQMD’s four-county jurisdiction should call the agency’s 24-hour complaint line at 1-800-CUT-SMOG or file a complaint at www.aqmd.gov.

Contact the writer: [email protected]

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Kelly Puente is an award-winning general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. She has worked as a journalist in Long Beach since 2006, covering everything from education and crime to courts and breaking news. Kelly previously worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register before joining the Post in 2018. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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