Tricked by the stink of natural gas

Tricked by the stink of natural gas
Where there’s a smell, there could be an explosion.

At 8 o’clock in the morning, calls starting coming in from people in downtown Great Falls, Montana. All the callers reported they smelled a natural gas leak, and authorities completely evacuated at least six buildings as they searched for the problem. It turns out it was an olfactory deception caused by the gas company, and it had nothing to do with a leak:

Nick Bohr, general manager at Energy West, said workers at the company were cleaning out some storage areas and discarded several boxes of scratch-and-sniff cards that it sent out to customers in the past to educate them on what natural gas smells like.

"They were expired, and they were old," Bohr said. "They threw them into the Dumpsters."

When the cards were picked up by sanitation trucks and crushed, "It was the same as if they had scratched them."

The chemical mercaptan is added to natural gas, which is odorless, so people can detect gas leaks. It smells like rotten eggs and is not poisonous.

All the cards combined to make a very strong smell, so as the garbage truck drove around downtown, it left behind the smell people think of as natural gas.

"It’s really, really potent," said Jamie Jackson, a battalion chief for Great Falls Fire/Rescue…

Workers still were checking for possible gas leaks at noon "to make sure two things didn’t happen at once." Workers followed the garbage trucks out to the dump and went through those loads of garbage after they were dumped.

"There’s no problem with contamination," Bohr said, and the smell samples "can be buried with normal garbage." He said 25,000 of the samples were sent out at one time.

Bohr said the company apologizes for the problem, especially since the smelly culprits originally were just part of a process to make everything safer.

"In a sense, it worked the way it was supposed to," Bohr said of the numerous calls reporting gas leaks.

Energy West official: Scratch-and-sniff cards to blame for gas smell in downtown Great Falls. Great Falls Tribune>>

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