You know it. If you’ve ever been in downtown Vancouver in the wrong place at the wrong time, you know it.
The odor sweeps through the west side, from the downtown waterfront to Uptown Village, an ominous cloud of stink. The base notes of the Eau de Vancouver funk is rotting, sewery and chemicalish, with delicate top notes of acrid industrial smoke.
The smell raises some urgent questions, including “what is that?” and “why is that?” and “what did we do to deserve this?”
In order, the answers are as follows:
1. A nearby sewage treatment plant, mostly.
2. Unfortunate weather patterns.
3. Nothing … probably.
What’s that smell?
There are a few olfactory offenders situated along Vancouver’s industrial waterfront. Among them is Albina Asphalt, which unsurprisingly smells like hot asphalt, and BNSF Railway, which gives off the scent of diesel exhaust.
But among the most pungent is the city’s Westside Wastewater Treatment Plant, near the corner of Thompson Avenue and West 16th Street, where the smell is less industrial and more organic. That’s because, well, wastewater is smelly. It’s also mostly organic.
The plant holds an emissions permit from the Southwest Washington Clean Air Agency, the group that monitors air quality in the region. The discharge permit allows the wastewater plant to release a certain amount of nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds into the air, along with some other pollutants.
While no violations have been recorded this year, the SWCAA reports nine permit violations by the facility since 2000, including infractions when the plant exceeded its particulate matter limit in 2014 and its VOC limit in 2016 — both potentially smelly problems.
The Washington Department of Ecology also fined the city of Vancouver after two spills from the wastewater plant in 2017 resulted in nearly 600,000 gallons of raw sewage and laundry waste being released into the river.
The odor that sporadically chokes up downtown Vancouver has strong similarities to the smell outside the wastewater plant.
However, it’s unlikely that any single culprit is responsible, said Crystal Moore, a compliance specialist with the SWCAA. More likely, she said, is that the smell comes from a combination of emission-producing activity along the Columbia River.
“You’ve got everything down there from big food places, to big smoke operations,” Moore said. “There are a lot of contributors in that area.”
Why does the smell come and go?
Ever notice any similarities in when the stink hits? You may, for example, have clocked that the odor is stronger on cold days. You also might have noticed that the stench is often worse in the morning.
The answer is in the weather patterns, according to Moore. When the weather and wind are just right (or wrong, depending on your perspective), the various fumes become concentrated close to the ground, and to our noses.
Sometimes, a layer of warm air settles in over a layer of cool air. The warm atmosphere acts as a cap, keeping cooler air, and any kind of stinky pollutants released into it, low down.
It’s called an inversion, Moore said, and it usually happens when air closest to the Earth’s surface comes into sustained contact with something extremely cold — say, the ground during a clear, freezing night. The effect is stronger in areas with low-lying elevation, because cold air from higher points “drains” into the low points, like the banks of the Columbia River.
“Weather like today is a perfect example of an inversion,” Moore said on a particularly smelly, chilly morning in late November.
There are multiple plants and factories near west Vancouver that “emit things into the air that, depending on the weather, will also settle,” she added.
Downtown Vancouver’s proximity to those various emitters, combined with its low-lying elevation and recent cold snap, is to thank for its more-than-occasional malodor as of late.