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Clifton Fuel-Oil Smell Creates a Mystery

Something smells funny in Clifton. And although fire department officials don't believe it poses any health threat, the source of the odor is still a mystery.

"After the Dec. 2 Town Council meeting, there was a petroleum smell on Main Street," said Clifton Mayor Jim Chesley. "I had the fire department look into it, and they said somebody probably spilled fuel oil when filling their tank [for home heating] and not to worry."

But the smell kept coming and going — especially at the stormwater drainage grates along Main Street. And it was more pronounced at night than during the day.

Residents Margo Buckley and Terre Simpson first noticed it in early November, during their regular evening walks together. "I noticed a smell like gasoline at the corner of Chestnut and Main Street," said Buckley. "After about a week, I asked Terre if she noticed a funny smell, and she said she did."

Then, said Buckley, they discovered the offensive odor was coming from a grate. And as they kept walking, they realized it was also emanating from other grates on Main Street. But they didn't smell it during the daytime.

"One of the firefighters explained that sunlight and warmth can dissipate smells," said Buckley. "But at night, atmospheric pressure condenses it so you smell it full-force."

After about four weeks of it, they told Chesley. "I'm anxious to find out what it is," said Buckley. "We've been walking for six years now, but never noticed it until then. Some nights, it would be so strong, it could knock you over."

"I thought somebody must have spilled some gas or oil, or dumped some oil down the drain after changing the oil in his car," said Simpson. "But that didn't make sense, because it didn't go away."

THEN SHE began thinking there was a leak in someone's oil tank up the street. "But we had such a wet year that it seemed unlikely that it would have been a one-time spill, because it would have been washed away," said Simpson. "And you can still smell it."

Other residents, including Deb Dillard and Nick Heckert, also got whiffs of it, and they all brought it to Chesley's attention. Concerned, on Dec. 17, he called the Fairfax County Health Department so samples could be taken of any oil slick.

"All the water from the stormwater-drainage system drops off by the side of the Masonic Lodge, near the bridge at the end of town," said Chesley. "It goes through a pipe into Popes Head Creek — which goes to Bull Run Creek and then to the Chesapeake Bay."

John Yetman, an environmental-health specialist with the county, came out and took water samples from a pipe there. Said Chesley: "He said the smell was so bad that he called Hazmat."

Then Lt. Terry Jenkins, with the Fire Marshal's Office, Hazardous Materials Investigations, went to Clifton. "They monitored it and returned several times and took water and soil samples on Main Street," said Chesley. "They also measured the concentration of petroleum particles in the air, at the grate."

The readings were taken from stormwater runoff, and a very low concentration of petroleum was found. "The readings ranged from 1/2 to 2 parts per million — very minute numbers," said Fire Department spokesman Dan Schmidt. "At this point, we don't believe [it's harmed the environment]. According to OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards, the permissible exposure limit for a worker, over an eight-hour period, is 500 parts per million."

Still, although Schmidt said, "There's no visible evidence of anything," he said the fire department notified the state Department of Environmental Quality and is working with the Health Department and Chesley to find the source of the petroleum.

"WE'RE DOING what we can to mitigate it, but there's certainly no cause for alarm," said Schmidt. "It could be home-heating oil or diesel [fuel]. Even a few ounces of oil spilled could linger for several months."

Nonetheless, said Chesley, "It bothers me and everybody else here because of the well situation [Clifton's homes have well water]. I personally think it's coming from an old tank on Main Street." He said most of the houses in Clifton are heated by fuel oil, and their tanks are supposed to be changed, every so often.

"I think one or more are leaching oil into the ground," he said. "They get old, rust and start to drip. And with all the rain we've had — oil being lighter than water — oil floats on it. We already have a high water table here, anyway, so all the rain pushed the groundwater and the oil higher and closer to the surface — to the level of the groundwater-drainage pipes."

Chesley also figures that, because of cracks in the stormwater-drainage system, the oil has gotten into the groundwater. So he asked the county and state for maps of Clifton's drainage system. But none existed because Clifton's underground pipes are so old.

Then VDOT got into the act. Although the county's in charge of the sewer system — and Clifton owns the pipes — VDOT maintains the stormwater-drainage system because it's in VDOT's right-of-way. So on Jan. 7, Chesley met with Jenkins and with Bob Driscoll, VDOT's head resident engineer for Northern Virginia.

Driscoll sent for a TV scope truck to photograph one end of the town's drainage pipes to the other to see if it could reveal the source of the leak or leaks. It would map out the system and look for cracks. (Chesley estimates the system was installed prior to 1954 because that's how far back VDOT checked).

MORE INFORMATION came to light at the Jan. 6 Town Council meeting. Councilman Wayne Nickum, who lives on Main Street, said his neighbor's oil tank rusted out, about 15 years ago, and 200 gallons of fuel oil poured into the ground. "This was the first anyone had heard about it," said Chesley. "So I also had the Hazmat guy take samples there, and I recommended that everyone in town get their fuel tanks and wells checked."

On Feb. 17, the scope truck arrived and a VDOT crew planned to videotape all the underground, storm-drain pipes to check their alignment and look for debris or stoppage. From a spot left of the Long & Foster, Realtors, building at the foot of Main Street, they planned to photograph up to 1,000 feet away.

"We'll look at it as it travels and will be recording it on a VCR in the truck," explained VDOT Transportation Maintenance Manager David Klink. "We figure any blockage would flow downhill to here."

So what was the result? "They got 10 feet in, and the camera broke," said Chesley. "They'll have to come out and do it again." Until then, the mystery continues.