Tara Jean Stevens said the “apocalyptic” stench that blanketed the Metro Vancouver community of Delta on Tuesday night was so heavy her car and garage still smelled of rotten eggs Wednesday morning.
“I had a headache all night,” said Stevens, a radio host on Wave 98.3. “I never get headaches … it felt thick in the air, even though you couldn’t see it.”
The source was a FortisBC station near Ladner Trunk Road.
The explanation about the cause has shifted, with FortisBC attributing it to an “equipment leak” in a social media post on Tuesday afternoon, adding later that the leaked gas had high levels of a harmless odour additive.
It said Wednesday in another social media post the smell was “due to a controlled release” of gas, while a statement on the FortisBC website described the source of the smell as a “minor leak” that was detected during the controlled release.
Regardless of the source, the chemical that caused the smell was mercaptan, which is typically added to odourless gas supplies so leaks are easier to detect.
The gas provider is being criticized for a lack of transparency and timely explanation about the stench Delta Mayor George Harvie said led to emergency services being flooded with calls.
Stevens said she first noticed the smell around 3 p.m. Tuesday when her son walked in the front door of their Delta home, and the smell was so strong she started to panic about what to do with her family.
“I was sitting here wondering, should I be getting in the car and getting out of here? Should I be driving until I don’t smell it anymore? Is something about to explode? It was stressful.”
In a written statement, Harvie said FortisBC didn’t make a public statement on the gas release for more than four hours after initial reports about the smell were received by municipal officials.
Harvie said there was a lack of communication from FortisBC, calling it “an egregious oversight.”
The heavy odour resulted in a flood of calls to police and firefighters that seriously hampered Delta’s emergency response resources, he said.
“The stress and panic that this incident caused to both the public and our first responders was completely unnecessary,” Harvie said.
He said he had asked Delta’s city manager to conduct a full review into why residents and businesses were “left in the dark” about the release.
“FortisBC must be accountable for their delay in response causing confusion and alarm in our community.”
In another written response, the City of Delta said its fire department received 19 calls transferred from 911 about the smell, and firehalls received about 100 inquiries. That doubled call volumes compared to the daily average.
In many cases, fire crews had to physically attend to make sure there were no on-site gas leaks, it said.
The City also said Delta Police received several 911 calls about the smell and about 50 non-emergency calls on Tuesday, delaying their ability to take other calls.
“The failure of FortisBC to communicate this gas odour leak had a serious impact on our emergency services whose resources should be dedicated to real emergencies,” Harvie said.
At 4:56 p.m. on Tuesday, FortisBC had said on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that it had responded to reports about the smell and “an equipment leak causing the odour is under control.”
Around 9 p.m. another social media post flagged a service alert about the smell, saying “gas is under control.”
In its website statement issued Wednesday, FortisBC said the odour was the result of work on new equipment at a Ladner facility, where “a controlled release of gas” was conducted Tuesday.
It said a minor leak was detected and brought under control by 2 p.m. “and repairs are underway.” But the leak contained a large amount of mercaptan.
“The release of gas with a high concentration of mercaptan was not anticipated and, due to the strong smell, it has been detected by residents in several communities, including Ladner, Delta, Richmond and Vancouver,” the statement said.
It said that despite the strong smell, mercaptan was not hazardous to inhale “with the quantity released in the atmosphere.”
“We apologize for the inconvenience this may cause residents and commuters in the area. We realize the odour is very strong but it is expected to dissipate.”
The odour was so heavy on Tuesday that BC Ferries told foot passengers at its nearby terminal to stay inside during their commute, while vehicle passengers were asked to roll up their windows.
Stevens said it was crucial to find out what went wrong.
“Even if FortisBC had properly warned our community that something was happening, I still think that it was a completely inappropriate level of something in our air,” she said. “I mean, it felt apocalyptic. It was very off-putting.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2024.