The source of a noxious odor that blanketed parts of Valencia County a week ago is still a mystery.
Calls about the odor began flooding in to the Valencia Regional Emergency Communications Center shortly after 5 p.m., Friday, Jan. 13, on both the emergency and non-emergency lines. Dispatchers fielded more than 200 calls from residents reporting a foul odor, which varied in description from natural gas to crude oil.
The center’s district director, Tommy Sanchez, said dispatchers working the day shift stayed about an hour and a half past the end of shift to handle the call volume.
From 5 to 11 p.m., the center received 102 911 calls, and 114 calls on the non-emergency, administrative line reporting the odor.
Rio Communities Fire Chief Andrew Tabet said the department responded to a call about the smell of gas on Goodman shortly after 6 p.m., but couldn’t find a definitive source.
By 6:48 p.m., 65 calls about the odor had come into the communication’s center.
“Myself and the Belen fire chief (Charles Cox) went out to Mesa Oil to investigate,” Tabet said. “There were numerous complaints saying that was the source.”
The two chief arrived to a potent smell of gas but yard personnel said the company hadn’t been operating for several days.
“I went to the refinery part where they burn (the used oil) and it was cold to the touch,” the chief said. “We went out there with every intention of shutting them down if they were the source.”
By the time Tabet and Cox returned to the Rio Communities fire station, an additional 85 calls about the smell had come into the dispatch center.
“At 7:10 p.m., the gas smell covered three-fourths of the city,” Tabet said. “We ruled out BNSF (Railway), the high-pressure gas lines in the area and in the city but we couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary.”
Tabet said when New Mexico Gas was initially contacted, Mesa Oil was singled out as the culprit.
“Eventually, they had seven techs looking in the area; we took one of their field supervisors out (to Mesa Oil),” he said. “It wasn’t them.”
Valencia County Fire Chief Matt Propp said calls initially came from the areas of Rio Communities, Belen, Jarales and Tomé, but as the night continued, the odor was reported in El Cerro and as far north as the village of Bosque Farms – an area of nearly 30 miles.
Personnel from the Rio Communities and Belen fire departments were dispatched first, then as the odor spread to unincorporated parts of the county, crews with the Valencia County Fire Department got involved in attempting to track down the source of the smell.
Local fire crews have limited monitoring equipment that can detect volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and elements that displace air, Propp said, “but we don’t have a ton of tech for natural gas, that’s why we brought in New Mexico Gas detection crews. They were unable to locate a source.”
On Facebook, many county residents pointed the finger at Mesa Oil as the source of the foul smell.
Propp said crews visited the facility four different times Friday night and didn’t identify an active problem at the facility.
“In the end, we couldn’t pinpoint a source,” Propp said. “Mesa Oil was shut down and not operating. The rail yard had no issues. The pipeline was fine.”
Crews spent the night moving from area to area looking for active issues, based on reports coming in from residents, Propp said.
“It’s one thing to have a four-block area pinned down, but when you have 30 square miles to find something, it’s tough,” he said. “It was moving. We’d get calls in Jarales. It would dissipate then someone on the eastern end of Rio Communities would call because it was strong over there. Then it would move to Tomé. We were chasing it – it was very frustrating on our end.”
Propp said eventually responders learned there was a heavy inversion layer – warm air that traps pollutants in an area – over the valley.
“Anything that happened that day would have been held in,” he said. “In a way, we can’t really rule anybody out. We ruled out active issues, but that’s not to say there wasn’t something that happened earlier that day.”
Propp said he didn’t know of any calls specifically requesting medical assistance.
“There were reports of a strong odor that was making people sick, but we weren’t dispatched for medical,” he said.
Propp said if another odor incident occurs, if people feel sick and have headaches, they should try to leave the area.