Officials: Gasoline caused mystery odor in Skippack homes

Officials conduct an investigation into a odor that begun a voluntary evacuation, Monday, July 14, 2014, in Skippack, Pa. Residents of 150 suburban Philadelphia homes are being allowed to return as their houses are tested after a voluntary evacuation overnight due to a mysterious odor. Officials are awaiting lab results to try to identify the substance responsible for Sunday eveningís problem in the neighborhood in Skippack. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

SKIPPACK — More than 100 residents who were displaced from their homes on North Gorski Lane and surrounding streets after a gas leak Sunday night were allowed to return to their residences Monday morning as county authorities and local firefighters continued to investigate the leak’s source.

“If it goes away (Monday) night, we will probably never know the source. If it does not go away tonight, obviously it’s going to be a much bigger problem,” with more investigation necessary,” said Skippack Fire Chief Haydn Marriott.

As he spoke, Marriott gestured to the three end homes on a seven-unit townhouse building fronting on Gorski Lane just east of Bridge Road. Around 5:45 p.m. Sunday, Skippack and several other fire companies responded to a call for an odor of gas fumes in an end unit, he said, and soil samples taken Sunday night were evaluated by the state Department of Environmental Protection and federal Environmental Protection Agency Monday.

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“I’ve heard back from the DEP and EPA laboratories, and the test results are for gasoline. That is what is in the sump pumps down there, in those three houses,” said Marriott.

Initial meter readings found high levels of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) in that home, as well as numerous other residences in the attached-home development. However, Marriott said the HCN was most likely masking another chemical, which is the true source of the smell noted by some residents.

“We are in the process of flushing out the sump pumps with water from the residents’ garden hoses, and we’re ventilating the houses with fans and are going to re-evaluate in a little bit,” into Monday evening, to see if hazmat levels have dropped, he said.

The levels of VOC found in the North Gorski Lane homes were not deadly, but were “high enough to cause concern,” Marriott said, and as of 6 p.m. Monday no residents “has any symptoms or (other medical problems) whatsoever.”

Two residents did go to local hospitals as a precaution, and were tested and released with “no findings whatsoever,” he said.

Skippack Elementary School had been set up as a shelter to accommodate those families displaced by the leak, and township officials and the Red Cross were assisting any displaced residents who arrived there, according to the chief. Several neighbors in the area said they stayed with friends, family, or in hotels overnight until receiving the all-clear from the fire company Monday morning.

Neighbor Erich Fenstermacher said he saw several fire trucks coming down Gorski and thought his grill must have caught on fire before learning of the hazmat. Neighbor Dave Jamieson and several others who asked not to be identified said the fire company measured minimal or zero hazmat levels in their homes Sunday night before they were evacuated, and measured the same or lower readings again Monday once they returned.

An Army National Guard base located just across Bridge Road is almost certainly not the source because that property is lower than the houses where the spill was detected, Marriott said - “it’s not to say it’s impossible, but it would be ... miraculous.”

A post on the Skippack Fire Company’s Facebook page initially said the homes “have been found to have high readings of a volatile organic compound (VOC) in the basements that are coming from the sump pumps.”

Utility companies serving the neighborhood responded to scene; although the odor did not seem to be caused by any utilities, according to Marriott.

Storms and heavy rain that rumbled through the area Monday were only a minor irritant, Marriott said, and may in fact end up helping with the cleanup.

“We’re kind of hoping for more rain. The more rain we get, would be better to flush this all out and clean it all out. Right now, I would like some rain,” he said.

Ann Cornell contributed to this story.

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