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Mystery of smell that sickened Ferndale students still unsolved

Students at Horizon Middle School, Cascadia Elementary and Eagleridge Elementary complained of a foul odor Thursday. The schools are within a ¼-mile radius of each other.
Students at Horizon Middle School, Cascadia Elementary and Eagleridge Elementary complained of a foul odor Thursday. The schools are within a ¼-mile radius of each other. The Bellingham Herald file

A foul odor that sickened children in Ferndale remains a mystery, days after students and staff at local schools were evacuated due to the smell.

Students complained of the raunchy odor wafting into classrooms around 12:20 p.m. Thursday, in at least three schools within a ¼-mile radius of each other: Horizon Middle School, Cascadia Elementary and Eagleridge Elementary.

Early reports suggested three to five students felt ill. As first-responders went through the schools, they found 35 people who were nauseous, but none to the point of needing emergency medical aid, said John Gargett, deputy director of emergency management with the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office. Buses evacuated students from Horizon and Eagleridge and took them across town to the Ferndale High School gym.

The smell lingered about an hour, though it kept coming in waves throughout the afternoon. Gargett, who smelled the odor in Ferndale, said to him it was like the smell of a dead animal. This was not like sulfur or rotten eggs, he said, the telltale sign for the poisonous gas hydrogen sulfide.

However, the Northwest Clean Air Agency noted on Friday that at the Phillips 66 refinery “an upset in the refining process caused a strong sulfur odor on site, which dissipated by mid-afternoon.” The agency received a call at 1:37 p.m. about a sulfur smell, and two more calls that referred to the odor as a sulfur smell.

The Phillips refinery is located about 3 ½ miles southwest of Horizon Middle School. Winds were blowing from the south and south-southwest in the afternoon, according to data from the National Weather Service. The Northwest Clean Air Agency notes that they haven’t been able to verify the source.

“The stumbling block for us is that by the time we got an inspector up there to investigate, there was no detectable odor,” said Seth Preston, a spokesman for the agency based in Mount Vernon.

It’s possible the Phillips refinery was involved, Gargett said. But he’s skeptical. The upset at the refinery occurred around 8:30 a.m., long before people started to smell something in Ferndale, according to Phillips’ report to local officials.

“Were they related?” Gargett said. “Maybe, but that’s about as far we’ve gotten.”

A spokesman for Phillips 66 declined to comment on the findings of the Clean Air Agency. An industrial hygienist from the refinery responded to the schools to help try to figure out what was causing the smell but, like others, the readings came up with nothing unusual.

Officials have looked into many possible causes: local farms, or a pipeline leak, or even something unpleasant being shipped by rail, but so far they’ve come up with nothing. The other companies that refine or transport oil products along the shoreline of Whatcom County – BP and Kinder Morgan – also found no problems.

Ferndale School District Superintendent Linda Quinn did not return phone calls on Monday.

Classes resumed Friday.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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