Monday, March 4, 2013

Blaming the Methane: Los Angeles Edition

Methane is an odorless gas. It is also hazardous at high concentrations. This is why the gas company adds a stinky blend of mercaptans to it as a warning agent. Simple, right? Unless you are a TV reporter or Santa Monica Fire Department spokesman, that is.

A sulfurous stink rose in Los Angeles over the weekend and the usual clown riot ensued. Here’s the headline from KNBC-TV:
Ocean Stink Prompts Flood of 911 Calls
And here’s the lede: “Methane gas from the sea floor caused a foul odor on Sunday . . .”

I don’t blame coastal resident Maria Carlito Covarrubias for posting on Facebook about a possible gas leak, nor Summers McKay for calling her building manager with the same worry. Like everyone else, they’ve been drilled since childhood to identify mercaptans with natural gas. And public safety-wise that’s a good thing.

But reporters (yes, Sharon Bernstein and Heather Navarro, I’m talking about you) ought to know that methane is odorless and the stink is artificial. And first responders (Justin Walker of the Santa Monica Fire Department, I’m talking about you) should be clear on the concept.

When he talks about tectonic plates and sea floor ruptures, Mr. Walker could simply point out that regardless of methane content geologically vented gases often smell sulfurous (fumaroles, mud pots, hot springs, etc.).

Adding to the confusion is this KNBC subhead: “The smell may not have been the result of a natural process in the ocean as originally thought.” Huh? So was it a utility gas leak after all? Something extraterrestrial, perhaps? Or did the copy desk just stick that in?


UPDATE March 4, 2013

One and a half cheers for KABC-TV which gets it mostly right:
SANTA MONICA, Calif. (KABC) — Air quality officials said methane gas [d’oh!] or stinky algae were the likely sources of Sunday's foul odor across the Southland.

Technicians with the South Coast Air Quality Control District said they believe the stink is an ocean-based natural occurrence blowing ashore from the Santa Monica Bay.

Santa Monica hazmat crews found unusual concentrations of odorless methane gas
[yessssss!] in the air.

Officials believe either a pocket of stinky algae, or a bubble of methane laced with sulfurous gas, surfaced in the ocean.
[There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?]
Meanwhile, the L.A. Times blog quotes S.M.F.D.’s hapless Justin Walker:
Recent shifts in water temperature might have caused plankton and algae beds to bloom, releasing methane just under the surface, Walker said. The gas also might have been produced by a geologic event, such as a shift in tectonic plates, he said.
Or, to quote Zed: “Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in a thermal pocket and reflected the light from Venus.”

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