WILMINGTON—It’s been more than six months since residents first complained about an odor lingering over Wilmington, an odor some have likened to cat urine.
Though the unpleasant odor persists, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said the company responsible for producing the smell is not in violation of the state’s odor regulations.
Originating off Highway 421, the smell has been tied to Fortron Industries and has been on the DEQ’s radar for years.
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Roger Barwick, a truck driver who frequents Highway 421 in Wilmington, said he believes the odor resembles “cat urine, just like everybody else on the internet,” he said.
“I just don’t know how somebody can get away with that kind of odor,” Barwick said. “On hot days when there’s no wind and the air is thick, it’s just terrible.”
DEQ receives nearly as many complaints in 2018 as it did in 2017
Outside of the human nose, there is no mechanical device designed to detect and record the chemical that produces the scent, according to DEQ Spokesperson Sharon Martin.
Last year, the DEQ received 20 odor complaints about Wilmington — just one more than it has received halfway through 2018; as of July 10, the department has received 19 odor-related complaints.
When the department receives an odor complaint, a trained inspector will visit the site of the complaint and judge the smell by their own personal standard.
“These guys are well trained and they know that area so well,” Martin said. “For the most part, they can distinguish which smell is coming from where.”
In a email sent to several elected officials in December, DEQ’s regional supervisor said he personally detected the scent at an “acceptable level” on Nov. 26, 2017.
A chemical compound to blame
The chemical compound known as 4-mercapto-4-methyl-2-pentanone – referred to as MMP or Feline P – is formed from impurities when Fortron Industries produces a polyphenylene sulfide polymer used in cell phones, electronics aerospace parts, and other products.
Travis Jacobsen, spokesperson for Fortron Industries, described MMP as a compound with an “extremely low odor threshold.”
“The ‘catty smell’ is not harmful to humans and is entirely environmentally safe in the quantities that are smelled by the public,” Jacobsen wrote in an email.
Because MMP is an unregulated compound at the state and federal level, its presence in Wilmington’s air would have to breach the state’s odor regulations for a violation to occur.
Outside of New Hanover County Public Health’s jurisdiction, the agency responsible for regulating the odor would be the DEQ’s Department of Air Quality.
“There are multiple odor sources in that industrial corridor,” Martin said. “Not every smell is a regulatory violation.”
Though the cat urine scent could meet the state’s definition of an “objectionable odor,” it falls short of the DAQ’s definition of odors that are harmful to human health. Objectionable odors, defined as smells present in the air that can “unreasonably interfere with the comfortable use and enjoyment of life and property,” must be mitigated with “feasible controls.”
Since the plant began operations in 1993, Jacobsen said efforts outside regulatory requirements have been taken to minimize the spread of MMP’s “catty scent.”
“For more than 20 years, Fortron has been proactive in trying to minimize this compound’s impact sending all of our process vents to pollution control equipment that is not required by any current regulation or standard,” he wrote in an email.
Brad Newland, the DEQ’s regional supervisor, said Fortron is controlling MMP through the use of an approximately 99.9 percent efficiency natural gas-fired thermal oxidizer.
While some weather conditions can affect the smell, Martin asked that anyone with an odor complaint contact the DEQ’s regional office around the time it is first detected.
“Odor can be very fleeting,” Martin said. “There are some weather conditions that seem to exacerbate the odors.”
The DEQ asks that all odor complaints be called into the department’s regional office in Wilmington at 910-796-7215.
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