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Mysterious Stench Swirls Around City

Southland residents from the coast to the Valley report a rotting garbage-like odor.

September 22, 2005|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

Steve Randall caught wind of the stench on his way to work. It reminded him of a hot and humid summer day -- in Manhattan.

"It was that sort of weird, clinging cloud-of-garbage-like smell that has come to characterize New York in August," Randall said.

Considering that it was cool and rainy en route from Westwood to Santa Monica on Tuesday, Randall wanted to make sure he wasn't imagining it. He asked the security guard at his office to come outside to corroborate. The guard didn't smell anything unusual and instead lampooned Randall. " 'This is what fresh air smells like after it rains,' " Randall recalls the dubious guard's retort.

But his wife had smelled the same thing at their Westwood home.

And so it went across the Southland, as some detected strong odors from the coast to the Valley. Workplaces and weblogs were buzzing, with descriptions comparing the smell to old socks, rotting cabbage soup, kimchi, moldy wet wallboard and the "dampness of the air interacting with my cat's litter box."

But others in those same places didn't detect anything unusual.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, the regional government air pollution control agency, fielded about seven calls from residents in Granada Hills on Tuesday night reporting odors of garbage and sewage. But the inspector the agency sent to investigate didn't detect any odor or possible cause, spokeswoman Tina Cherry said.

City and county officials said they didn't know what might have triggered the odors either.

But environmentalists speculated that the first heavy rain in weeks had flooded storm drains with debris, oil, animal waste and litter. As the material decomposed, it may have created odors. This could explain why the smell was detected in some areas and not others.

"Whenever we get a significant amount of rain, especially where there's a lot of concrete and asphalt, it causes a build-up in storm drains," said Matt McClain, spokesman for the Surfrider Foundation. "When it's decomposing, you get a lot of smells."

It's this "first flush" of the season that causes the most water pollution, McClain said.

Carolyn Sun, 30, a jewelry designer, says she inhaled the odor en route to a party in Miracle Mile on Tuesday night. "It was like a stew of sulfur, sewage and bad omen."

Los Angeles County health officials said that bacteria levels in the coastal waters -- which many storm drains run into -- were 10 times the acceptable state levels Tuesday and were expected to be even higher Wednesday.

They advised against swimming in the ocean for at least three days.

In addition, the red tide of algae bloom in the ocean has been particularly heavy in the last few days, which may be responsible for fishy odors that have wafted to areas within about a quarter-mile of the coast.

"It was really bad this past weekend," said Heather Hoecherl, science and policy director of Heal the Bay, a nonprofit organization in Santa Monica.

Reddish by day and glowing green at night, the red tide moves with the currents. "It's patchy throughout the bay, so some areas might be more funky than others," Hoecherl said, noting that after Tuesday's rains, surfers were describing the shoreline as "one big glowing blob."

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