Warehouse Fire Was Source of ‘Putrid’ Odor in California

The fire, in Carson, Calif., on Sept. 30, consumed beauty and wellness products and sent chemicals into a nearby waterway, the authorities said. Thousands complained about the stench.

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A foul stench that nauseated and puzzled residents of Carson, Calif., for weeks has been traced to a September fire at a warehouse filled with wellness and beauty products that released chemicals into a nearby waterway, an investigation by a local air pollution agency has found.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued violations on Friday to four companies affiliated with the warehouse and to Los Angeles County, which is responsible for maintaining the Dominguez Channel.

The warehouse fire started on Sept. 30 and quickly burned through rubbing alcohol wipes that were stored in crates and pallets, a Los Angeles County fire inspector told KTLA. Mark Pestrella, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, said in an interview on Sunday that the warehouse contained “large vats of ethanol” and “everything from hand wipes to bottles of hand sanitizer.”

The chemicals then passed into the sewage system, the air quality district said, and ultimately drained into the Dominguez Channel, a flood-control waterway that runs more than 15 miles from Los Angeles International Airport to Los Angeles Harbor. This led to the decay of organic materials in the channel, resulting in the emission of hydrogen sulfide gas that far exceeded the state’s nuisance standard, the agency said.

The resulting “putrid, sulfur-like odor,” as the Public Works Department described it in a letter to the county’s board of supervisors, generated thousands of complaints. In the span of less than a week, the authorities fielded more than 4,000 complaints from residents of Carson and surrounding communities, the air quality district said, noting that the smell of hydrogen sulfide can trigger headaches and nausea.

One resident, a high school football coach, told The Los Angeles Times that the smell was “like a dirty gym sock” or “an unclean locker room.” Another compared it to the stench of rotting fish and dirty diapers.

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Firefighters battling the blaze at the warehouse in Carson, Calif., on Sept. 30.Credit…L.A. County Fire Department

A class-action lawsuit filed in mid-October accuses three companies that were doing business at the warehouse at the time of the fire of negligence, which led to the noxious gas exposure.

In the days after the fire, the companies failed to properly discard large quantities of “soggy, charred debris” that were piled up in and around the warehouse, “despite the dangers and high likelihood that the debris would make its way into nearby storm drains,” according to the complaint.

For a week after the blaze, residents of communities along the waterway had no information about the source of the odor, the lawsuit says. Local officials speculated about the cause of the fire. In early October, Mayor Lula Davis-Holmes of Carson said that the gas was from a “leaking pipeline.”

Monique Alvarez, 40, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who lives a “30-second jog” from the channel, said in an interview on Sunday that “no one was really helping” or “providing tangible resources.”

“We didn’t really have answers at the time,” Ms. Alvarez said, adding that her three children broke out in welts and woke up struggling to breathe.

“One day living in this environment felt like an eternity,” she said.

A week after the fire, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health declared that it had found “very low levels of hydrogen sulfide” in the air. Two days later, the department said the odors were “sufficiently pervasive” and urged residents to get air filters, shut their windows and doors, and keep their pets indoors.

At one point, members of about 3,400 households were staying in hotel rooms paid for by Los Angeles County, said Kerjon Lee, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works, adding that the county also provided 40,000 air purifiers.

These efforts and the emergency work to mitigate the odor from the channel had cost the county $54 million as of last week, Mr. Lee said.

The warehouse is owned by Liberty Properties Limited Partnership and its parent company, Prologis Inc., according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Two other companies, Virgin Scent and Day to Day Imports, were storing wellness and beauty products there at the time of the fire, the air quality district said.

The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Prologis told The Los Angeles Times that the company was working with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to clean up the debris from the fire and to protect the property from storm water runoff.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Pestrella, the county Public Works Department director, said that the department was seeking an emergency designation from the state and that Los Angeles County was “preparing potential litigation” against the companies.

He added that the odor had lifted, and that while water conditions were much improved, it could take up to two years for the channel to fully recover.

Ms. Alvarez said that after a month in a hotel room, she and her family returned to their home just after Thanksgiving. Their neighborhood no longer smells, she said, but her children still occasionally experience symptoms, including bloody noses.

“My home does not feel safe anymore,” she said. “People in our area are still getting sick. The symptoms are still here and our bodies are still saying something is wrong.”

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