What’s that smell in Charlotte? Environmental cleanup company behind odor, source says


CHARLOTTE — If you’re smelling gas in Charlotte Thursday, you’re not alone.

Mecklenburg County authorities said they are getting a high number of 911 calls regarding a rotten odor associated with natural gas throughout the city. From uptown to Plaza Midwood, in west Charlotte and north Charlotte, people couldn’t escape the smell.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening?’” said Christine Ramos, who lived in NoDa. “It wouldn’t surprise me about anything happening in Charlotte.”

According to Piedmont Natural Gas, there are no natural gas leaks on its system. It said the widespread odor was caused by a local company destroying mercaptan tanks that were “mistakenly reported empty.” A source told Channel 9 that Legacy Environmental was the company that caused the smell.

The tank contained the odorizer added to natural gas. Natural gas doesn’t have a smell, so officials add the chemical mercaptan to give it that sulfur-like smell that alerts people when there’s a leak. Piedmont Natural Gas said in a statement that “mercaptan does not pose a danger or require evacuation.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “olfactory fatigue may occur” for mercaptan. That means you might stop smelling the odor before the mercaptan vapors have fully dissipated.

The smell was so overwhelming that it caused evacuations at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse and several other businesses. Chopper 9 Skyzoom flew over large groups of people seen standing outside buildings, and even hotels.

“(It) smelled like natural gas. We were up in our hotel room, and I got a waft of it, and I thought, ‘That’s odd. We are in this enclosed room.’ It just had a gas odor,” said Lee Wilzcek, who could smell the odor in Charlotte.

The odor also prompted emergency alerts to be sent out across the city saying don’t call 911.

“Our call center has received thousands of calls for service today,” said CMPD Lt. Stephen Fishbach.

The sheriff’s office said the Charlotte Fire Department later cleared the courthouse but that it would remain closed for the rest of the day.

Charlotte Fire and Mecklenburg County officials said they are continuing to work with Piedmont Natural Gas.

The role weather played in making odor smell stronger

Meteorologist Keith Monday said the lingering natural gas smell is due to temperature inversion. That’s when warmer air sits atop cooler, denser air, at the surface. Any strong odors can get trapped below that inversion, such as the stronger smell of gas.

The National Weather Service has also confirmed a weather inversion is making the odor easier to smell.

Monday said that Thursday’s weather is not causing the smell of gas to show up, but it does make it more pronounced.

>> The graphic below shows what a temperature inversion looks like on a sounding (measurements taken from a weather balloon.) The red line is temperature, and the green line is dew point. The inversion shows up when the red line moves to the right with height and then quickly back left.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police has asked people to not call 911 regarding the weather inversion, unless they are feeling sick or having a medical emergency.

Channel 9 has reached out to Piedmont Natural Gas for more information. We have not heard back at this point.

This is a developing story. Check back with wsoctv.com for updates.

(WATCH BELOW: North Carolina approves rate hike from Piedmont Natural Gas)

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