WILMINGTON, Del. – How many government agencies does it take to figure out the source of a funky smell bewildering the tri-state area for months?
Apparently, at least half a dozen.
For months, multiple agencies, power companies and officials in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been fielding calls from people complaining of a "mystery odor" that smells somewhat like fuel.
The phones are still ringing. But whether the smells being reported in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and surrounding areas are mysteriously related is proving to be a challenge.
"Once the odor’s gone, it’s almost impossible to figure out where it came from," said Virginia Cain, a spokeswoman with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. "Some folks describe it as more oily, some as more diesel, some as gas or natural gas."
The first time officials may have encountered the "mystery odor" could have been over the summer, Cain said.
"Then it (happened) a handful of more times," she said. "I would say it’s ongoing in that we have not come to a solid conclusion on what it was. But it’s also hard to classify it as ongoing because it could never happen again."
It's also hard to say what classifies as an instance of the "mystery odor" or just a run-of-the-mill odor complaint that might be linked to the nearby industries along the Delaware River.
Factor in other variables like which way the wind is blowing or the accuracy of someone's sense of smell, and it's possible that people passing through parts of northern Delaware or nearby New Jersey may have also caught a whiff of what’s been dubbed by some officials as “the floating odor.”
"We deal with odor complaints all the time," Cain said. "What made this situation different is it was really the first time we were seeing such widespread odor complaints over an entire area, moving throughout the entire county."
Cain said the latest effort to figure it out involves deploying an RV-like vehicle to monitor and sample the air around Delaware County and nearby facilities. State environmental regulators have been placed in the county to be on the ready to follow the scent before it fades away again.
"No one is working in a vacuum or a siloed effort to figure this out," Cain said.
She encouraged people to continue calling 911 if they think they are experiencing the "mystery odor" for more accurate tracking during the investigation.
Emergency officials in northern Delaware also are on the case. Dave Carpenter, New Castle County's coordinator of emergency management, said the "floating odor" has been a nearly monthly occurrence since August, with the most recent reports coming out of Salem and New Castle County on Jan. 7.
He said New Castle County also got hit with odor complaints that could be related to the "mystery odor" on Sept. 3.
"We stress to the public that gas odors inside a residence have the potential for serious consequences, so do not ignore any odors you may smell," he said. "Emergency services and gas companies need to be alerted if you have a smell of odor inside your residence."
In November, Philadelphia’s 6ABC reported a “petroleum-based product” had been leaking from a Sunoco pipeline in the area where people had been complaining about a “mysterious odor.” But they also reported that it was unclear if the smells were related.
The following month, the station reported that Delaware County had formed a task force to investigate the smell, which other residents described the scent as having notes of manure or sewage. But that may have been something different altogether.
At a Jan. 13 meeting of local emergency planning officials in Delaware, New Castle County's Coordinator of Emergency Management Dave Carpenter reported that agencies had met about the mystery odor described as “a gas smell” before Christmas but still had not pinpointed the source weeks later.
Some of the organizations involved in investigating the smell include the U.S. Coast Guard, local power companies, the National Weather Service, local emergency officials and environmental regulators from Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to that meeting’s minutes.