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What's that weird smell in North Vancouver?

While there’s no question that people have smelled it, it was a bit of a mystery as to who dealt it.

Spring is in the air in North Vancouver. There’s also something else a bit more noxious.

Metro Vancouver has tracked down the source of a mysterious and unfamiliar odour hanging in the air between Norgate to Lynn Creek.

At least seven complaints had been filed with Metro Vancouver, which has jurisdiction over air quality in the region, since Monday, April 17.

“People reported experiencing a strong, offensive odour, described as burnt or smoky,” a statement from Metro read on Friday. “The complainants have detected the odour at The Shipyards (public waterfront space), along East Esplanade, Lower Lonsdale, on the Spirit Trail, Moodyville area, along East 1st Street and along East 3rd Street.”

North Shore News readers described the scent in varying ways, from “mushrooms or wet socks” in Norgate to a “strong chemical smell” or “burned pad thai” near the Spirit Trail, or “burnt coffee” in Lynn Creek.

While there was no question that people had smelled it, it took some time to narrow down who dealt it. Metro dispatched an investigator to the area on Thursday who was able to detect a “moderate odour,” but detecting an odour’s source can be very difficult.

Typically, once a Metro Vancouver air quality investigation has started, an officer will see where the smell was reported and cross reference it with meteorological conditions at the time.

“They will then work their way going upwind to see if they can make observations using their nose, because the human nose is still the best detection instrument for odour,” said Kathy Preston, director, environmental regulation and enforcement for Metro Vancouver.

Metro Vancouver gets about 3,000 complaints about a wide range of issues per year, Preston said, and by their nature, ones related to smells are among the trickiest to track down.

“Often, it moves around. It’s ephemeral. It doesn’t last for very long,” Preston said. “It’s a bit difficult. If the complaints continue and it’s a real issue, then we’ll have even more officers go out.”

In 2020, UBC scientists launched Smell Vancouver, or SmellVan, an app that allows people to report odd smells they encounter in public, which Metro staff members also consult. Since April 14, users have logged six smells between St. Andrews Avenue and Brooksbank Avenue, all south of Fourth Street.

After sending an officer out again on Friday, Metro Vancouver confirmed the source.

“It was coming from the Cargill Ltd. grain terminal located at 801 Low Level Road, North Vancouver,” a statement from Metro read. “Cargill has admitted to being the source and are actively addressing the issue now – it appears their grain silo overheated.”

Like all the other major industrial waterfront tenants, Cargill operates with an air quality permit from Metro Vancouver.

Cargill did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

With the amount of commercial and industrial activity in that corridor, air quality investigators always have their work cut out for them, Preston said.

“There’s a lot going on in the areas where people have been smelling it…. There’s the port, but there are also breweries, there are coffee roasters,” she said. “Part of the nature of societies is that we create odours, especially the more compact the area that we live in.”

Instructions for reporting an air quality concern can be found on Metro Vancouver’s website.