An apparent illegal disposal of gasoline into a storm inlet by an unknown party resulted in gas fumes entering Tamaqua homes and permeating the air in one neighborhood a situation that may persist until a natural abatement process takes place, say officials.

The situation was revealed about 11 a.m. Tuesday with a complaint of a smell of heating oil or gasoline coming from the basement of a home on the north side of the 300 block of residential West Broad Street.

Responding firefighters, police, borough workers and fire police noted a distinct smell of gasoline vapors in the vicinity of West Broad and Nescopec streets.

A check of nearby dwellings and apartment buildings in that area and to the rear near West Rowe Street confirmed the presence of a gasoline-type odor, according Jason Hartz of the Tamaqua fire department.

Bob Schlorf, captain, Tamaqua fire police, noted that the area in question is located directly above the Wabash Creek Tunnel, an 1850s-era stone arch which carries the creek beneath the downtown.

A subsequent investigation by Rob Jones, Tamaqua public works director, uncovered gasoline-contaminated ice and snow at a storm grate located 1-1/2 blocks away in the unit block of South Lehigh Street, near the bottom of Stadium Hill. The area near the drain is an empty lot where a fire in the early morning darkness of July 5, 2011, ripped through the block and destroyed six houses.

It initially appeared that the gasoline may have leaked from an unknown vehicle. However, upon further examination, spilled gasoline was observed in the snow and ice on the sidewalk. The presence of gasoline around the storm grate and sidewalk strongly suggested that someone had deliberately poured gasoline into the storm inlet, spilling a significant amount of the liquid in the process.

The inlet leads directly to the enclosed Wabash Creek. In turn, the creek flows beneath many homes and businesses in the downtown area, some having inactive sewer pipes connecting the buildings to the creek. In a few specific buildings, the creek tunnel is visible in basements on West Broad and West Rowe streets.

The number of houses impacted by the gas odor is unclear. The odor appears to be confined to basement levels and can be detected in the neighborhood.

Investigators said the situation eventually will take care of itself.

"It'll just have to pass through," explained Jones.

Persons occupying buildings near Wabash Creek might notice a gasoline odor coming from their basements. This will occur until the contaminant disperses, it was noted.

The identity of the person who illegally disposed the gasoline is unknown.

"Who would be dumping gasoline at $3.60 a gallon," said a neighbor.

There was speculation that someone might have emptied gas from a snow thrower or similar equipment following recent snowstorms. The person may have thoughtlessly or carelessly dumped the liquid into the inlet.

Breathing in gasoline vapors can make a person dizzy, even in small quantities. The effect can increase the longer the fumes are inhaled, according to health experts. The dizziness can result in impaired coordination causing a person to fall or trip, which can result in injury. In extreme cases, unconsciousness can occur.

Those with gas fumes in their homes should ventilate the area as thoroughly as possible.