- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

“What is that smell?”

That question was on the minds and lips and in the nostrils of people throughout the District yesterday when city officials scrambled to track down a noxious odor that affected dozens of homes, police stations and businesses and led to the temporary evacuation of two schools in Northeast.

The source of the complaints could be a backed-up sewer line on the property of Joseph Smith and Sons Inc., a scrap metal recycling facility in Capitol Heights, said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. fire department.

Mr. Etter said the packed pipe and a lack of rain served to spread the odor throughout the District’s four quadrants and caused the evacuation of Joel Elias Spingarn Senior High School and Young Elementary School.

The odor “is coming through the air and it’s also traveling down the pipe and has been able to seep into the buildings,” Mr. Etter said. “It’s pretty unlikely that all the [complaints] are related to that one thing but the phenomenon is still the same.”

Mr. Etter said crews with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) likely would be working through the night to flush the pipe. “There was a lot of material in there,” he said.

But, WSSC spokeswoman Lydia Wilson said the cause of the smell was still to be determined. She said there was an overflowing manhole and 47 feet of damaged pipe in Capitol Heights, but that had nothing to do with the smell.

“Speaking to our crew that was on site, based on their assessment, the smell is not related to that,” Miss Wilson said.

The mystery surrounding the noxious smell started when city calls proved to be gas leaks, but others were related to an unknown odor.

Washington Gas officials likewise were stumped by the smell yesterday. Spokesman Tim Sargeant said the company fielded 150 calls yesterday, but that gas was not the offending odor in many of the complaints.

Mr. Etter said most of the complaints were concentrated in upper Northeast, but some calls came from residences in Southeast and one school in Northwest. Firefighters also responded to the 5th and 6th District police stations.

Hazardous material crews responded to many of the locations, but found no traces of anything harmful.

Washington Gas and the D.C. fire department sent inspectors to the Joseph Smith and Sons recycling center on Route 50 and Kenilworth Avenue, where officials with the recycling center said they smelled a natural-gaslike odor at 7:30 a.m.

The officials said yesterday that the inspectors could not find a source for the odor.

“They toured the site and determined nothing here was causing the odor,” said Paul Tharp, a company spokesman. “We were just as concerned as they were.”

Mr. Tharp said the center does not use any chemicals to process materials and the facility has passed previous inspections by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Mr. Etter said 11 D.C. schools reported strange odors yesterday. However, a spokeswoman for D.C. schools said the odor in one of those schools was caused by a microwave problem.

Keith Stephenson, principal of Browne Junior High School in Northeast, said his students were not evacuated, but that the smell was present on the property.

“It didn’t really smell like gas, just a strange odor,” he said. “More like some sewage or something.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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