‘Why does it smell like onions in my car?’: Odor around Charlotte caused by additive to natural gas, officials say

An inversion kept the smell close to the ground.
It's a stench that traveled miles away from Uptown Charlotte.
Published: Jul. 14, 2022 at 10:06 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – A natural gas odor throughout the city of Charlotte led to a high number of 911 calls, officials said Thursday.

Piedmont Natural Gas later reported that while there are no leaks, the smell is coming from mercaptan tanks that were destroyed by a local company. Mercaptan is an odorant added to natural gas to make it easier to detect.

“Mercaptan does not pose a danger or require evacuation. Piedmont injects mercaptan into natural gas to give it a distinctive smell of rotten eggs, making it easy to detect. Natural gas by itself has no smell,” Piedmont officials said.

They added that Piedmont, in coordination with fire crews and city officials, discovered that an environmental company near uptown Charlotte was destroying mercaptan tanks that were mistakenly reported empty, causing the widespread odor.

According to information from Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, a weather phenomenon known as an inversion kept the odor close to the surface, making it easy to smell.

“There is no need to report this odor unless you have a medical emergency or you feel that this odor is coming from your home or building,” according to an alert from emergency officials.

According to the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, the gas odor led to the evacuation of the county courthouse. It was later cleared by the Charlotte Fire Department.

The Charlotte Fire Department began sending out emergency notifications about the smell around 10 a.m. Thursday and said they were experiencing a high 911 call volume. Emergency officials noted those calls started coming in at 8:45 a.m.

Emergency management staff went on to say the National Weather Service confirmed a weather inversion was causing the odor, or rather was keeping the odor from being dispersed throughout the atmosphere so that no one would smell it.

An inversion happens when warm air traps cold air below it. Since the cold air has nowhere to go it holds smells close to the ground, making them more extreme; in this case, it was that natural gas smell.

“We were like, ‘What is that smell? Why do we smell gas?’ Then I went to go get coffee on Central and another person told me the same thing, that they could smell it off of Seventh. So I was like, ‘Where is this coming from and why does it smell like onions in my car?’” resident Reyana Radcliff said. “But apparently it’s everywhere; you can smell it everywhere.”

Mercaptan is an odorant added to natural gas to make it easier to detect.

Erika Jackson was attending the national UPS convention on Thursday at the Charlotte Convention Center when the smell forced its way inside the building.

“It was a gassy Mercury smell. It just kind of penetrated the whole Convention Center,” Jackson.

Jake Ellis was at his condo just one mile outside of Uptown when he smelled the odor. At first he thought it was coming from his home or neighboring units.

“I had my balcony door open and my neighbor came out. We thought it was coming from our condos near where we live.”

Jackson says said people started getting headaches and others vomited as a result of the stench. She said they did not evacuate after learning the smell and chemical, mercaptan, were harmless.

“Everybody got the alert and understood that it wasn’t the actual convention center that had the leak of the smell and that it was something that was affecting everybody city-wide and it wasn’t anything to be concerned about it really did alleviate a lot of the concerns,” Jackson said.

As of 11:40 a.m., Medic had responded to at least 20 calls related to the incident. No transports for life-threatening injuries were reported.

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