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Timing unclear when smell in Carson will be gone

Three weeks after a foul smell was first reported in Carson, Los Angeles County officials say they can’t predict when the odor will dissipate, and residents are fed up: They’ve filed a lawsuit alleging a warehouse fire caused the stench.

Late last week, officials said the smell, which was first reported Oct. 3, would go away within three to five days after chemicals were sprayed in the Dominguez Channel. That timeline was revised to this weekend after efforts to combat the odor were hampered by low supplies of a biodegradable neutralizer.

For the record:

2:14 p.m. Oct. 22, 2021In an earlier version of this article, the director of Los Angeles County Public Works was misidentified as Mark Pastrella. His surname is Pestrella.

But at a news conference Friday, county officials would not commit to when the smell — which has been likened to rotten eggs and vomit — would be gone.

L.A. County Public Works Department Director Mark Pestrella said that, based on recent readings, the levels of hydrogen sulfide gas that is causing the odor have decreased significantly since crews started spraying the channel. And officials expect a significant reduction in the smell by this weekend, but they couldn’t promise how long it would linger.

“I can’t predict when the event will be over for individuals because each individual has a different sensitivity to hydrogen sulfide gas,” Pestrella said.

Even minimal levels of the gas can affect the public. The smell has been causing headaches and nausea, among other symptoms.

On Friday afternoon, Carson city officials said they planned to ratify a local emergency proclamation and would demand the county, state and federal government do the same.

Officials say the levels of noxious gas are too low to cause long-term health effects, but have advised residents to avoid prolonged outdoor exercise at night and in the early morning.

Workers have been spraying a biodegradable neutralizer into the Dominguez Channel, a 15.7-mile aqueduct in southern Los Angeles County, but applying it during high tide allowed much of the chemical to wash away. Operations are now continuing at low tide, and workers are also aerating the water and lighting the channel at night because they think the bacteria causing the smell is photosensitive, Pestrella said.

“The first application was last Friday, and we received our full shipment [of the biodegradable spray] and began the daily application on Tuesday,” said Kerjon Lee, a spokesperson for L.A. County Public Works. “We’re spraying in a robust way, something like 3,700 gallons a day.”

There also are plans to dredge the channel to remove debris from the bottom. But that could be a months-long process, officials said, and no start date has been suggested.

Residents filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that a warehouse fire last month caused the smell.

The company that leased the warehouse, which contained flammable ethanol-based hand sanitizer, maintained unsafe conditions, the lawsuit states, and those circumstances caused the fire, which left charred debris and scorched sanitizer after the warehouse wasn’t properly cleaned.

Firefighters said the Sept. 30 blaze, which burned intensely and sent plumes of black smoke across L.A., started in boxes of rubbing alcohol. About 200 firefighters responded to the scene in the 16300 block of South Avalon Boulevard. Three were injured fighting the flames.

In the days after the fire, debris flowed into the Dominguez Channel, the lawsuit alleges, and caused the decay of vegetation, which produced the flammable, toxic and corrosive hydrogen sulfide gas.

Monique Alvarez, a third-generation Carson resident, didn’t immediately pin the odor in the air as the reason she and her family weren’t feeling well in early October.

It’s an industrial area she’s very familiar with, where her grandfather worked as a cannery employee decades before and where she now owns various properties. The occasional smell coming from factories that usually goes away didn’t bother her. But then, this smell intensified.

The stench of “rotten flesh sitting in the sun” seeped its way into her home, even with the windows and doors shut. She would wake in the middle of the night to a sense of fear. Was her stove gas leaking? Was she choking?

Her children, ages 11, 7 and 3, started having headaches, coughing and a burning sensation in their eyes and throats.

“I was trusting what I was being told by the county and scientists, but my body was telling me something different.”

On Oct. 14 Alvarez attended a rally and council meeting to bring attention to the situation. During the meeting, Pestrella told residents that there was an investigation about a fire and debris that may have caused the stench. On Oct. 15, she relocated to her in-laws home and then to the Holiday Inn in Long Beach, where she is still staying.

“It’s a bag of mixed feelings,” she said. On one hand I’m at peace that I’m not goin to wake up to my kids choking.”

On the other hand, Alvarez has been frustrated by officials’ lackluster response to the local crisis and suggestions for residents to close their doors and windows.

“To me that’s not realistic,” she said. “The smell would start to seep in at 11 p.m., coming in through vents, so even if you sealed all the doors and windows, you’re locked in with this gas. It’s scary. It’s suffocating.”

Alvarez said she’s participating in the lawsuit because she feels a need to protect the land that her children will inherit, and to ensure her community can live a healthy life.

“The consensus in my community has been one of fear, distrust and desperation, and feeling like no one is hearing us,” she said. “We still don’t have a definite date,” for when the odor will go away,” she said. “There’s nothing concrete.”

The lawsuit states that Art Naturals, the cosmetics company that leases the warehouse, and owners Prologis Inc. and Liberty Property were negligent and created a public nuisance. Art Naturals didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Jennifer Nelson, a spokesperson for Prologis, which acquired Liberty Property Trust in 2020, said the fire at their warehouse is unrelated to the smell.

“As media outlets, including Los Angeles Times, have been reporting, the odor is related to decaying plants and marine life in the Dominguez Channel because of the drought. The unfortunate fire that broke out in late September is unrelated, which we will make clear when we respond to these allegations.”

Officials have said the drought caused more underwater vegetation buildup than usual this year.

Pestrella said he didn’t know about the lawsuit and would not comment on it. However, he confirmed that officials were aware of an “improper discharge” into the channel, which is being investigated. He declined to comment further on that county investigation.

“We routinely recover improperly disposed materials in the waterways of L.A. County, and Dominguez Channel is no different,” he said. “We have found materials in the water indicative that there was some discharge at some point before the incident occurred that is contributing” to the smell.

Times staff writer Andrew J. Campa contributed to this report.

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