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Consumers Energy responds to natural gas odor near Musson Elementary

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published December 23, 2019

 Parents and community members have concerns about a strong odor commonly associated with natural gas around Musson Elementary School, which Consumers Energy officials said is coming from the natural gas valve site and odorizing station next to the school.

Parents and community members have concerns about a strong odor commonly associated with natural gas around Musson Elementary School, which Consumers Energy officials said is coming from the natural gas valve site and odorizing station next to the school.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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ROCHESTER HILLS — Some say it’s been months, others years, but nearly everyone who lives around Musson Elementary School has noticed a strong natural gas-like odor in the air at one time or another.

Many in the Musson community have commented about it at drop-off or pickup. Some say their kids have complained about the pungent smell at recess, and some have even expressed that their children have developed respiratory symptoms from the odor.
The concern prompted the Rochester Community Schools district, in conjunction with Musson’s PTA, to host an informational meeting with Consumers Energy about the odor for the public Nov. 18.


The source
RCS Strategic Communications Director Lori Grein said various families shared concerns about the strong odor associated with natural gas in the areas of Brewster and Musson elementary schools, Van Hoosen Middle School, and Adams High School with the district Oct. 9.

On Oct. 10, representatives from Consumers Energy admitted that the odor was coming from a natural gas valve site and odorizing station located near Musson on Dutton Road, which the company has operated since 1970.

Representatives said the site contains underground pipelines that transport natural gas to customers, valves that can control the flow of gas, and equipment that adds an odorant formula, which includes mercaptan — a substance that gives the distinctive “rotten egg” smell — to natural gas to help customers identify a possible gas leak.

“Yesterday, we responded to concerns of a strong natural gas smell at the station and found a small leak on a line that allowed odorant to be released inside the station. There was no natural gas leak. Consumers Energy employees will be performing repairs after normal school hours today. An inspection and repair of equipment will be made, and the inside of the building will also be scrubbed with a special material to help prevent any lingering odor. We apologize for the concern this issue may have caused and appreciate your ongoing cooperation regarding this important function of our natural gas system,” Consumers Energy said in an Oct. 10 statement.

Following repairs, the stench in the area remained, and parents and community members continued to complain, prompting the Nov. 18 meeting.

During the meeting, Consumers Energy officials said they had tested the line leading to the odorant tank for leaks via pressure testing and tested the entire site — including Musson and neighboring subdivisions — and discovered no evidence of a leak.

“The building itself that’s over there has injection pumps, and they are constantly injecting the odor. It’s a sealed system,” Kurt Adams, the gas metering and regulations team leader for Consumers Energy, said during the meeting. “I would suggest that it’s not leaking currently. If it was leaking, it would smell a lot worse. I understand that it’s quite offensive at this point. … It’s an older site, so it’s residual odor.”

Musson parent Tiffany Keith said she has lived across the street from the facility for about 12 years and has noticed the odor periodically.

“It’s been in the area for so long, but in the last two months since we started to have cold weather, we had an extreme uptick in the occurrence and how strong the odor is. I’ve gotten used to it, living here, but at 3 a.m. it woke my entire family up. Three people in my court called the Fire Department and called Consumers. You responded very quickly, but I think we need a little more than ‘there might be a little residual odor,’ because this isn’t a residual odor situation,” she said.

Adams said it doesn’t take much of the odorant to produce an offensive smell.

“Just a drop would evacuate a mall,” he said.


Parents, staff speak out
During the meeting, Jennifer Koluch, who has a kindergartner at Musson, expressed concern for the children at recess.

“If you stand on that playground, the smell is so strong. It’s not just wafting by. It literally hits you in the face,” she said. “The kids are going out there playing every day with this smell just coming at them. And it’s not like this just started. I have a home across the street. This has been going on for a year and I’ve called you guys numerous times.”

Musson Principal Laura Walsh said the odor is so offensive that many times in October and November, she allowed students to come into the building early at drop-off, stay inside longer at pickup, and has even decided to cancel outdoor recess for the safety of her 500 students.

“There have been times that we have held the students in for recess,” Walsh said during the meeting. “There have also been times I have had parents request it, and I have honored that request.”

Many Musson parents said their children have come home from school complaining of headaches and nosebleeds.

“My daughter, for two months, came home and said, ‘I have a headache.’ She’s been eating good and sleeping good. My friend’s daughter is the same; my other friend’s son is the same. For two months, all our kids have been complaining of headaches,” said Musson parent Sherry Gerges.

Christina Gadde, who has two children at Musson, said her youngest son has been suffering from headaches.

“From the start of the school year, on multiple occasions, my 5-year-old kindergartner has come home complaining of headaches when he has never before ever complained about head ailments,” she said. “And I’ve heard from multiple other parents that their children have been complaining of headaches and nosebleeds that they hadn’t previously had.”

Gadde fears that what happened in Aliso Canyon, California — when SoCalGas employees discovered a massive natural gas leak on Oct. 23, 2015, that reportedly caused headaches, nausea and severe nosebleeds in local residents — is exactly what’s happening at Musson.

“I’m fearful that our children are having those same respiratory, throat, headache, nausea, dizziness issues that those folks had in California,” Gadde said.

Dean Kim, who lives approximately 150 yards away from the Consumers Energy facility and has two daughters who attend Musson, said he’s not convinced that the odor in the air surrounding Musson is strictly the odorant formula.

“The smell that we all smell in the Musson community is one of two things: It’s either odorant by itself or odorant mixed with natural gas. … No one can tell us with 100% certainty that we’re not breathing in natural gas,” he said. “That’s my No. 1 concern.”


Health concerns
The natural gas odorant formula used by Consumers Energy is a blend of 75% tertiary butyl mercaptan and 25% dimethyl sulfide, and officials said it should not be confused with other mercaptan formulas — such as methyl, butyl or ethyl mercaptan — which are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Consumers Energy officials said their odorant formula is nontoxic and that neither of the odorant’s components are listed as carcinogens by OSHA, the National Toxicology Program and the International Research Agency for Cancer.

However, representatives said the odorant is designed to produce nasal discomfort.

“It produces nasal distress and discomfort, and that’s why many, many years ago the natural gas industry went for that, because it’s a fairly unique smell that many people describe as a rotten egg smell,” Adams said. “The major issue the compound produces is upper respiratory discomfort with prolonged exposure. Ultimately, we feel comfortable saying that there’s little health risk that will be a result of exposure at low levels.”

Steven McKee, who manages the odorizing station near Musson, said his employees work directly with the odorant on a daily basis and have never had a health concern related to exposure.

“We have employees that have 30-plus years with the company and deal with it on a daily basis and have never had health-related issues, so we are pretty confident in saying there are no health risks,” he said.

Many parents asked how much of the odorant formula in the air is too much for students and community members.

RCS Director of Capital Projects and Facilities Pete Muscio said OSHA does not have any exposure limits for tertiary butyl mercaptan and dimethyl sulfide.

“From an environmental perspective, I don’t think we can recommend that there is a particular threshold,” Adams added. “I think there is a difference between it being extremely offensive and it being something that would cause health issues.”


Upgrades planned
Although Consumers Energy stressed that the odorant blend is nontoxic, the company is taking both short- and long-term actions to mitigate the stench, they said.

To help remove any potential odor vapors from the pumps that inject the odorant, along with the building that houses the equipment, the company has already installed various filters — including a 55-gallon charcoal drum filter that replaced a quart-sized version — on the exterior of the building. Officials said they are also consulting with an outside contractor to provide additional carbon filtration and are exploring additional leak detection measures that would help mitigate odors.

In the summer of 2020, officials said, the site will undergo a complete modernization and upgrade, including the equipment that injects the odorant into natural gas. The project, which will cost approximately $5.5 million, will take about three months to complete, according to Consumers Energy, which said project information will be shared with school officials and nearby residents before work begins. Once the work is complete, Consumers Energy will continue to maintain communication with the school on a regular basis.


RCS addresses student safety
Following the Nov. 18 meeting, Gadde said a group of 11 Musson parents sent an email to the district requesting a number of actions — including that the district hire a third-party consultant to conduct air and soil testing, that it determine a long-term protocol for when students should remain indoors for recess, that carbon air purifiers be installed in all Musson classrooms, and that the district research tertiary butyl mercaptan, to name a few.

Since then, Grein said, the district has been taking measures to ensure the safety of its students and staff.

“The safety of our students and staff is always our priority,” Grein said in a statement. “Rochester Community Schools remains committed to working with our community and Consumers Energy to address concerns about the strong odor associated with natural gas in the area of Musson Elementary.”

Since the Nov. 18 meeting, she said, the district has installed natural gas detectors in each classroom and the common areas at Musson.

Grein said the district has also been in contact with various experts  — including a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Oakland County Health Department, and the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy — to gather information and advice regarding the possible effects of natural gas odorant, and has engaged the environmental consulting firm GHD to conduct air quality testing.

“Testing was initiated on Dec. 12 and will continue through Dec. 17,” Grein said in a statement. “GHD will then forward the canisters to a laboratory for analysis. Once GHD receives the sample analysis results from the lab, they will issue a report to Rochester Community Schools on their findings.”

Anytime community members suspect a natural gas emergency or have a concern, district officials said they should always report any issue directly to Consumers Energy at (800) 477-5050. Consumers Energy said it will respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week to investigate all issues.

Those with additional questions can contact the district via the “Talk to Us” feature at www.rochester.k12.mi.us or Consumers Energy Community Affairs Manager Lauren Royston at (248) 433-5808 and at lauren.royston@cmsenergy.com.

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