This story originally appeared in the January 2018 issue with the headline “Can’t You Smell That Smell?”
The oil field, it is said, smells, but it smells like money. Part of the price of living in a boomtown like Odessa is learning to tolerate the strange odors that accompany oil and gas production, like the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide. But the stench that descended on east Odessa over the past year is something else entirely.
Maria Chavez says she first noticed the powerful odor back in April, when she started driving for ride-sharing companies in town. A big part of her business was to take oil field workers to and from the gentlemen’s clubs, Rick’s Cabaret and Jaguars, on the east side of town. “To be honest, the first time I smelled it, I thought it was a passenger,” she said. “But I kept encountering the smell, so I figured it was the area”—by which she meant an industrial zone near the strip clubs that’s lined with a variety of chemical tanks and totes that supply local drilling operations.
Over the course of Odessa’s summer, the smell strengthened and spread. At first it was intermittent and dependent on the whims of the wind. But then it became a more frequent presence in some residential areas. Priscilla Hallmark, who lives north of the tanks, says she lodged the first of many complaints with state regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality around the Fourth of July. The smell, which she describes as “decaying fish,” coated that holiday weekend. More recently, it made her Halloween and Thanksgiving festivities a lot less festive. It had become a fact of life.
In August, east Odessa residents started strategizing on Nextdoor, a neighborhood social network, and debating the proper descriptors. One opined that it smelled like “a dog’s anal gland.” Others considered the kind of decomposing marine life it most closely resembled: one said her church was abuzz with conversation about the “dead shrimp” odor, while another wrote that it “smells literally like a whale rotted and blew up in the neighborhood.”
The feedback locals had been getting from the city and state, at that point, was disappointing. TCEQ investigators who made trips to the area in August theorized that rainwater pooling in retention ponds on one chemical company’s site might have been the cause; the city’s director of public works specified that decaying plant matter trapped beneath the pool’s water might be causing the smell. According to one person on Nextdoor, the city also thought the smell could be sewage and replaced a lost manhole cover in hopes of resolving the situation. But nothing changed. Hallmark told the local paper she considered contacting Erin Brockovich.
Months passed, and the smell continued to take a toll. Residents inundated the city, county, and TCEQ with complaints. Local resident Charles Duke, a ringleader of these efforts, escalated things by taking his complaints to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. In October he wrote to the EPA that the odor was “a variable intensity of grotesque” and had recently permeated a funeral he’d attended in the vicinity of the tanks.
Of course, Odessa is filled with people who have a thorough knowledge of the oil field, some of whom said as early as August that the smell reminded them of certain oil field products, such as corrosion inhibitors, that are sold by companies in the area. Odessan Eli Kidd, a longtime engineer for an oil field service company, noted that one corrosion inhibitor he frequently worked with, packer fluid, had “a very pungent, fishlike smell.”
The wheels continued to turn slowly. A TCEQ report listed seven complaints between September 26 and October 12, which prompted another round of investigations. The regulators surveyed the wider area and made an assessment using the agency’s “FIDO protocol,” in which investigators measure the “frequency, intensity, duration and offensiveness” of bad odors, and eventually narrowed their focus to a business called Ace Completions, which stores a wide variety of oil field chemicals. It was a pool of water on Ace’s dirt lot that had drawn the TCEQ’s attention back in August.
That prompted a second visit, in which, finally, the regulators were hit with the full blast of the stench, as described in the succeeding report with clinical precision. “Investigator, Ms. Fairbanks, became nauseous from the smell,” it reads. “Investigator, Mr. McIntosh, found the odor to be offensive at this point and did not wish to remain at this location longer than required,” although he was not fast enough to prevent the smell from “saturat[ing] the TCEQ vehicle the investigators were driving, along with their clothing.”
That sulfurous sojourn finally prompted the TCEQ to serve Ace with a Notice of Violation for creating a “nuisance odor.” As to the question of the cause, the report notes that no specific source was found, but states that “TCEQ management and senior staff surmise that one or more of the chemicals” stored at the facility “were spilled and reacted with each other and or rainwater to produce the nuisance odor conditions.”
Reached in late November on his way to his company’s Christmas party, Ace’s CEO, Jody Ehler, insisted that the problem had purely natural origins, noting that three tests that were run to detect contaminants, at the suggestion of the TCEQ, came up empty. The real explanation, he said, was far more prosaic: after a pair of intense summer rainstorms, Ace’s entire property was flooded, and the storm water ended up in a retention pond, trapping plant matter, just as the city had initially suggested. (The water was reportedly pumped out and removed the first weekend of December.)
The real victim in the scenario, Ehler claimed, was Ace. The coverage in local media of the smell had been irresponsible and harmful to the company, and Ace was “working with the newspaper right now to redact [an] article” in which an area resident asserted that chemical contamination was involved. He also had critical words for regulators, who he said had mucked things up. The company, he said, had been working since early this year to redo the retention pond and might have solved the problem earlier had locals “not stirred up a lot of noise” and gotten so many agencies involved.
And after all, he pointed out, “That’s an industrial park that people live next to.” Sometimes, when you live in an industry town, you have to grin and bear the sweet smell of success.