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City blames New Jersey for sulfuric, urine-like mystery odor

For those of you lucky enough to have not yet smelled a sudden, overwhelming odor reminiscent of cat urine recently, you may have seen our story last week. Plenty of people did (it got more than 75 comments).

Turns out that the smell is likely coming from across the Delaware River. Councilman Mark Squilla’s office told us that the city’s Air Management Services office said it had been receiving complaints about the odor and that PGW, the Fire Department and AMS had been unable to determine any source in Philadelphia.

“Most likely it is coming from New Jersey due to the wind direction,” AMS said. A new power plant built by New York-based LS Power is about to open in West Deptford, N.J., directly south of the Navy Yard, putting South Philly in the path of a potentially foul summer breeze. The projected opening date for the natural gas-burning plant is Aug. 1.

A power plant like this Georgia one (pic from NPR) is opening soon in West Deptford, N.J.

A power plant like this Georgia one (pic from NPR) is opening soon in West Deptford, N.J.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has not finished its investigation, but the agency told AMS that “there could be combustion problems associated with the power plant and/or start up of the SCR units.”

Here’s some more relevant info from AMS:

“AMS obtained an air sample on Monday and the results revealed hydrocarbon compounds with concentrations less than 10 ppb which is significantly below any level of concern.  Unfortunately the air sample couldn’t be analyzed for sulfur compounds or ammonia.”

Lawrence Hajna, a spokesman for the NJDEP, said they have gotten some reports on their side of the river about sulfuric smells, but not an unusal amount.

“We’re working diligently to try to pinpoint the odor, but it’s so difficult to determine the source because of so many chemical and industrial uses along the river,” Hajna said. “We’re not necessarily taking full blame for the odor, though the signals seem to be pointing in that direction.”

Hajna cautioned that Philly residents should still call the city’s AMS if they smell anything, just in case there is a different issue.

“We’ve not come up with any technical or technological reason for the smell,” Hajna said. “[The power plant] did start up a unit and didn’t inform us about it, so it was operating for a while, but we can’t be sure that’s the source of the odors. We’re continuing to investigate.”

We also left a message Friday morning with LS Power requesting comment, but they haven’t gotten back to us yet.

So, what does that mean for us? The next time you smell that odor, call the NJDEP’s environmental incident line at 877-WARNDEP (877-927-6337). As Hajna said, you should also call AMS at 215-685-7585.

And please let us know if you continue to smell that smell, either by posting your location and the day in the comments or emailing us at


9 Responses to City blames New Jersey for sulfuric, urine-like mystery odor

  1. Rebecca July 21, 2014 at 10:07 am #

    Thank you for your continued reporting on this.

    • Albert Stumm July 21, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

      My pleasure, Rebecca. Have you smelled it again since the weekend before last?

      • Rebecca July 22, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

        No, we haven’t–in Girard Estate, at least. It’s either a happy coincidence or the result of so many of us sounding the alarm. Good work, neighbors, and keep complaining! This is a matter of public health and NOT “just South Philly in the summer.”

  2. Cara July 21, 2014 at 10:30 pm #

    After discussing the disgusting smell with one of my co-workers he had come up with a possible answer for the problem – the Amethyst Falls Wisteria plant. Apparently this plant has a reputation for smelling like strong cat urine and was a problem in New Jersey for some people. And the theories continue ….

  3. ProvWitout July 22, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

    So.. NJ gets to just stink all over us and ruin our quality of life?

  4. ProvWitout July 24, 2014 at 11:21 pm #

    Wow… Crickets in here… How come this isn’t getting a ton of comments? Why are people more adamant about wasting money on con crete bump outs at corners that about a urine-like smell that will blanket our area? How come people are so adamant about street sweepers and towing people’s cars, and dog shit patrols, but they won’t say a peep about this?

    • Rebecca July 25, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

      ProvWitout: I’m with you, if you want to start a citizen’s alliance sort of thing.

      • ProvWitout July 27, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

        We just might have to.. Who do we consult to learn how to fight something that is literally “over the river and through the woods” yet sill a major drag on our quality of life?

  5. Mare July 25, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    Continuing to get some gusts of the smell at Moore and Camac the last 2 days. Thank you for all your work on this!

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