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National Grid offers a second explanation of odor: fuel oil vapors from a storage tank

Village by: Joanne Kountourakis, November 16, 2021

National Grid's Northport power plant, pictured earlier this month.

What began as concern from Northport residents regularly confronted with a strong smell of gas outside of their homes has turned into a small-town saga, unfolding mostly on social media, as residents attempt to uncover the truth behind the smell.

For what some residents say has been months, people living in and around Steers Pit, on Ocean Avenue and along Eatons Neck Road, as well as those attending soccer games at both Steers Fields and Northport Soccer Park, have been noticing strong odors of what seems like gas in the air. The smell is similar to what homeowners would smell if gas was leaking from a burner in their home, residents say, and despite it being outside in the open air, can be noxious, nauseating and headache-inducing.

Just last week, National Grid said the source of the odor was a leak from a main on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Eatons Neck Road. Yesterday, representatives from the Grid provided a statement to the Journal that indicated fuel oil vapors from a storage tank located right next to Northport Soccer Park as a potential source of the odor.

The lack of concrete answers has some residents seriously questioning the air quality in their communities.

Reports of the smell began on social media on October 16, when local dad Francisco Rodriguez brought up what he noticed in a community Facebook group.

“Terrible smell of natural gas at the soccer park today,” his post read. “In a year going there for my son's games, I have never smelled it this bad.” An online dialogue ensued, with many residents chiming in with their own reports of the odor. When asked about his experience at Northport Soccer Park, Francisco told the Journal the smell was unusually strong on the day in question, “and that was why I posted the message in the Facebook group, directly from the field while the game was happening, because that was not normal.”

Taking the lead on the issue more recently is local resident Sarah Anderson, who lives in the Village and frequents Northport Soccer Park with her children. Sarah began conversing with Assemblyman Keith Brown in the same local Facebook group and has since teamed up with him in what is a grassroots effort to find answers.

In a November 5 post on his public Facebook page, later reported on by the Journal, Assemblyman Brown shared an emailed response from National Grid about what was initially thought to be the cause of the smell.

“Our Gas Field Operations personnel from our Greenlawn Yard repaired a Class 3 leak today from a 3” steel main at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Eatons Neck Road. We are hoping that we were able to address the source of these gas odor calls that have been reported by the local residents especially by the soccer fields,” the email from National Grid read.

But the smell persisted in the days after that email.

Early last week, both Sarah and Assemblyman Brown met with Joseph Warren, director of the Northport Power Station, at the location of an oil tank immediately adjacent to Northport Soccer Park. The smell as they approached the tank, Sarah said, was “like hitting a wall.” Mr. Warren told them the odor residents have been reporting “is an oil odor coming off the oil storage tank next to the fields,” said Sarah. “Apparently if the tank heats up, or if the oil is moved, these odors are released.” Sarah was told operations involving that tank would be halted on the weekends of the soccer season.

Halting operations on the weekend may provide a temporary respite from the smell, but what about people who live there and are exposed to the odor on a daily basis, Sarah asked.

“Clearly, there is not an easy fix,” she said in an update on the Facebook page. “And to be totally honest, as a mother of an asthmatic child, I shudder at the mention of burning oil into our air. The natural gas is bad enough.”

Northport Soccer Park is situated directly adjacent to the LIPA stacks; the storage tank now believed to be the source of the odor is on the property as well. According to LIPA’s Repowering Feasibility Study, conducted in 2020, the capability to burn natural gas was added to the steam units beginning in 1993. Prior to that, they only burned fuel oil.

Natural gas is supplied by a natural gas pipeline routed under the Long Island Sound and fuel oil is delivered to the steam units via ship through an offshore unloading terminal in the Long Island Sound, approximately two miles from the site. Mr. Warren testified in early 2019 that the plant’s units used natural gas about 95 percent of the time. In recent months, however, when natural gas prices rose significantly, residents reported noticing an increase in oil deliveries to the site.

On Monday, November 15, National Grid media representatives confirmed with the Journal that the company “identified a potential source of the odor as being fuel oil vapors from one of the storage tanks.” To address the odor, they said, workers on November 9 – the same day Sarah and Assemblyman Brown visited the tank – began transferring additional fuel oil into the tank to reduce both the vapor space at the top of the tank and the fuel oil’s temperature. “We apologize for the inconvenience the odor has caused the community,” their statement read. “The source of the odor has been difficult to confirm because it was intermittent and not always present… So far, this appears to be working, but we have workers on site 24/7 who will continue to monitor any odor issues, we are determined to find a solution.”

Complaints of odors are still coming in, as recently as this past weekend when families again took their children to games at Northport Soccer Park. Sarah made accessible to residents a Google form which they could use to document and track reports of odors, “so that we have outside triangulation of information,” she said, adding that all reports of odors should also be filed with National Grid.

Sarah has also contacted Senator James Gaughran, the Suffolk County Department of Health (SCDOH), the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), and reached out more locally to Town of Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci and Northport Village Mayor Damon McMullen.

According to Don Tesoriero, assistant to Mayor McMullen, the Village is aware of the gas odor, and has been involved in troubleshooting the issue. He confirmed with the Journal via email that the areas being discussed – the stacks and the oil tank by the plant – are beyond the Village's jurisdiction. “With that said, we understand the concern of our residents and are in contact with local officials to bring clarity to the issue and hopefully a solution,” he added.

When contacted for comment, Town of Huntington Clerk Andrew Raia said that although he is not involved in policy making and has no oversight on the issue, he is “acutely aware of the situation and [has] spoken to a number of residents” about this issue. The SCDOH told the Journal it did not have jurisdiction in these matters, and recommended contacting the NYSDEC.

“It doesn’t seem like the channels are working the way they are supposed to,” said Sarah, who believes a third party should be monitoring the situation, and that the community’s elected representatives should make sure that third party is involved. If no one is monitoring the environmental conditions around the plant, we’re not protected,” she said. “Local officials should be looking into this and finding a way to communicate what is happening back to the residents in this area. It shouldn’t be up to me to figure that out. We have to hold the officials responsible, and they have to hold the companies responsible.”

This evening, the NYSDEC confirmed that it received recent complaints about odors in the vicinity of the Northport Power Plant and said both the DEC’s Air Resources and Spill Response staff began compiling information about the facility’s recent operations. According to the DEC, the "facility is conducting an investigation into the odors under DEC oversight and DEC will work with the facility to help address any causes that are identified to prevent future odors and ensure the protection of public health and the environment.”

Residents who smell natural gas are encouraged to immediately contact the National Grid Emergency Number at 800-490-0045 and report the issue. Residents can also contact plant personnel at 631-262-6550. The Google form created by Sarah can be found here.