What the hell is that smell?

That’s the question that residents of coastal southeastern Louisiana have been asking since about 1 a.m. Wednesday.

New Orleans and surrounding cities sit at ground zero for a growing hive of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas drilling and processing facilities. Since early Wednesday, residents report being overwhelmed by yet another mysterious and powerful chemical odor (this one smells either like burning tires or a gas station, depending on who you talk to).

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Nobody seems to know where the acrid smell is coming from. But given that it smells like toxic petrochemicals, it’s a pretty safe bet that the toxic petrochemicals industry has something to do with it. On Thursday, the Coast Guard said it was investigating whether the odor was coming from a wastewater spill at an ExxonMobil refinery.

From The Times Picayune:

“We have received calls from the public regarding the odors, and we’re currently investigating these issues and working to pinpoint the source,” said [Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality] spokesman Tim Beckstrom.

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“Personnel from Coast Guard Sector New Orleans are working with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to investigate the source of a report of a gas smell near Terrytown,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class Bil Colclough.

Residents in Chalmette, Algiers and New Orleans began reporting odors to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade soon after 1 a.m. Wednesday, said Anna Hyrbyk, program manager for the environmental group.

“We anticipate more reports coming in because we’re getting calls from a lot of locations,” Hyrbyk said. “The wind direction is moving from the east to the west and in the last hour, we received reports from Harahan to Metairie about a burnt tire smell.”

Complaints about pollution are nothing new for the region, where oil spills, fires, and other industry accidents occur at a rate greater than one per day. And the acrid scent there is a recurring problem. From a May 2010 story in the New York Times, a month after oil beginning spilling into the Gulf following the Deepwater Horizon blowout:

Could New Orleans possibly be smelling that [Deepwater Horizon oil spill], from more than 100 miles away? Many say yes. But the mystery odor, which is stronger on some days and in some areas than others, is hard for residents to describe.

“It’s chemical, and I’m trying not to think about it,” said Raymond Dillon, a karate teacher.

Diana Mecera, a restaurant worker who lives in the French Quarter, said, “It’s a kind of a sewage smell.”

Her co-worker, Lauren Graham, a waitress, put it this way: “It’s more like being at a gas station.”

But the heavy funk in the air since Wednesday is something special. Check out the bucket brigade’s iWitness pollution map, which reveals longrunning pollution problems in Louisiana but also shows a sudden spike in complaints about air quality recently around New Orleans.

Hold your breath and don’t create any sparks, New Orleans.

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