The mystery continues around Metro's stinky stations

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Photo - Farragut North was among the Metro stations that experienced a foul, fishy smell last week. (AP file photo)
Farragut North was among the Metro stations that experienced a foul, fishy smell last week. (AP file photo)
Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir

Metro's got an odor problem. Riders have been complaining about it for months in stations all over the system.

It's fleeting but foul, funky and fishy.

In a single day last week, it was at the Farragut North, Cleveland Park and Bethesda stations for at least part of Thursday morning. Later, the stench was stinking up the Rosslyn station, according to a rider's report.

What do riders think of the smell?
The Examiner went to Twitter to ask
Metro riders to describe the odor throughout the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority:
@lorinb79: Aww hell. Is #WMATA fueled by rotten fish?
@annaGannaG: Rosslyn station smells like hot trash. So gross. #wmata
@JimSlatteryDC: smells like the southwest wharf after 10-consecutive 100+ days without rain
@tweet4pedro: its a dry smell, almost like if you dried out shrimp and made it into astronaut food.
@rkolosky: Like dead fish on a hot day. Think old Seafood Market.
@WMATARage: The smell of compost; of fish and rotting wood and hopes and dreams and organic matter all slowly oozing together in the same pile.
@DogsOfSample: Tourists gagging on fish train. If I give up vegetarian will it be more bearable?

Sometimes it is short-lived, with commuters passing through the same station an hour-and-a-half later not noticing it. But sometimes it lingers.

Typically the reports come from stations. But sometimes riders say it's the train that stinks for their whole trip. The smell occurs in hot weather and cold.

The problem is that Metro doesn't seem to know what is causing it -- or doesn't want to tell the public. Agency officials declined to answer repeated questions about the smell last week. In the past, the agency has blamed sewer gas and the trains' brake pads.

To be sure, the transit agency has more urgent problems, such as a recent derailment, brake parts falling off of trains and computer failures that bring down the system. But because the origin of the smell is unknown, so are any possible health effects. And it's a quality of life issue for riders who are already annoyed about delayed trains, air-conditionless rail cars, broken escalators and mangled communications. The stinky stations -- and lack of answers -- highlight a broader lack of confidence in Metro.

"Didn't you know? It's a chemical reaction when bull**** comes in contact with blood sweat & tears, all incubated with a dash of bile," wrote one vocal Metro critic, Kathi Spray, under the Twitter handle @StyxRiverGynoid.

Rumors have pinned the cause on organic brake pads that a vendor wouldn't take back, according to the blog Unsuck D.C. Metro.

Indeed, the agency has used brake pads made of some sort of organic material on its trains. European Friction Industries Ltd. lists Metro as a company that used its E-349 brake pads, described as "organic moulded friction material" that contains "no asbestos, heavy metals or other compounds with known environmental hazard."

But Metro spokesman Dan Stessel told the Examiner in January, "We have not used organic brake pads in years."

After the stink was reported in Gallery Place at the time, Stessel said it occurs when floor drains in the tunnels dry out, letting sewer gas escape. "The solution is adding water to the drains, which will require a track outage," he said.

But aboveground stations shouldn't have the same issue and riders have reported the smell at Vienna and Fort Totten's elevated Green Line platform.

And in 2006, the agency actually said that brake pads were the source of similar odors that riders reported to The Washington Post as smelling like dead mice or rotten fish.

"What is it? Well, we checked and the smell is coming from new brake pads that were recently installed in our series 5000 CAF rail cars," then-Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel told The Post.

And then the agency apologized. "The manufacturer of the brake pads is aware of the odor problem. We are working with the manufacturer to eliminate the odor and to find a fix ASAP!!! We apologize for the odor."

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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Kytja Weir

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner