What’s that Smell? It’s Houston!

Just another Monday in Houston? Last week we started the week out with calls from citizens concerned about an odor over Houston. People smelled the odor from downtown Houston, to the Heights, to Katy. They described it as like “burning rubber,” “mothballs,” or just “acrid.” (So many people were describing the smell, in fact, that we shared our “Odor Description Wheel” to help them.)

As usual, people immediately began speculating about the cause of the odor. We tend to follow these conversations on Twitter, one of the best spots for minute-to-minute updates on developing news stories. Early speculation blamed agricultural fires in Mexico and a gas leak at the Valero refinery. We called the Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER) Line to see if any messages had been posted.

By 11 AM LyondellBasell had posted a message to the CAER line about a release with possible odor at their chemical plant in Channelview. This, combined with an early conversation we had with the City of Houston, led us to believe Lyondell was most likely the cause. That turned out to be wrong, but in the minutes after an incident, who can tell?Memorial Villages Shelter in Place

Before noon, we heard from the Houston Fire Department that the smell was not harmful. This allayed our immediate concerns, and hopefully those of others as well. By the time the Fire Department spoke, precautionary shelter-in-place order had already been issued in Katy and Memorial Villages.

Sometimes we hear from a company almost immediately that there are “no offsite impacts to the community.” These initial assurances sometimes seem like knee-jerk responses based on little or no information. We feel very different when first responders assess a situation. We were also hearing from Harris County around this time that they had started monitoring as well.

Still, the incident left people to wonder: this one wasn’t harmful, but what happens during an event that is? Our answer is that better systems are needed to notify the public:

We also want people in Houston who were affected by the odor to file complaints with state and local regulators. People weren’t just complaining about a bad odor. There were numerous reports of health effects as well:


During and after the event, our main message to the public was the same as it often is during events like these: file a complaint!

With enough complaints and public pressure, we can hold companies accountable for these incidents. Complaints lead to investigations, and investigations lead to fines. Fines cost businesses money, and that creates an incentive to change behavior. Furthermore, oftentimes the only way the public will every learn about an event is if complaints are filed and followed through with. We have asked the city and the county numerous times since this incident what the conclusion was about who caused the odor. No one has been able to give us an answer. Investigations are “ongoing.”

We know that these things take time, and that memories are short. In another week or two, our local regulators may have an answer for us. In that time, will anybody still care, or will they have moved on to the next event?