Episode 8: The Fumes in South Portland. The eighth in an ongoing first-person series by InsideClimate News reporter Sabrina Shankman about the growing fears of residents in South Portland, Maine, as they try to solve a mystery: Are the fumes emanating from the storage tanks of the nation's easternmost oil port harming their kids?
SOUTH PORTLAND—Sometimes, grassroots activism looks obvious, with bold signs and public acts of disobedience. Sometimes, it looks like this: 14 people sitting on the carpeted floor of a sunny room in a home on Cottage Road while young kids color and eat crackers and fruit.
So it was on a recent Sunday, as members of Protect South Portland, an environmental group, sought to tap into a new vein of activism: parents. There's been this undercurrent of fear here for almost a year since we realized that the noxious fumes wafting from 120 bulk petroleum storage tanks in our otherwise idyllic, close-knit, environmentally conscious little city might be making our kids and our families sick, or worse, causing cancer. I'm a mom, and I've lived with that fear every day since.
My 14-month-old daughter, Ruby, goes to daycare less than a quarter of a mile from tanks that contain asphalt and bunker fuel, a thick, sludge-like kind of oil, both of which have to be heated to keep from hardening. My 4-year-old son Oscar's public pre-k isn't much further from these tanks, and is next to another tank farm.
My neighbors and I had grown accustomed to the stink, assuming that the state or city would let us know if there was a problem. But our sense of safety was shattered last March when the Environmental Protection Agency filed a consent decree with the company that owns some of the tanks, Global Partners, for having the potential to emit more than twice their permitted limit of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, a known carcinogen, and naphthalene, which can have neurological impacts.
I know a little bit about this. I'm an environmental and climate journalist by profession—my regular beat is the arctic, and I've covered similar stories in communities on Alaska's North Slope. It's hard to believe the same issues could be facing us here. Since the news broke my reporter's brain has been clogged with questions: Were those ubiquitous fumes an indication that toxic emissions were present in the air? And if they were, how much were we all breathing? And how harmful was it?
I've been asking those questions, and covering the story of South Portland's growing fear and anger, throughout 2019. I'm staying on the story until I find the answers, which likely means I'm in it for the long haul.
The fear is especially potent among those with young children, whose little lungs work overtime and who, along with the elderly, are particularly vulnerable to emissions. After all, these kids didn't choose where to live or where to attend daycare or school — that's on us, the parents, and these days those decisions carry with them the weight of wondering just what we're exposing them to.
"This has been a huge learning curve for all of us," Roberta Zuckerman said as people settled into their spots around the room. One of the driving forces behind Protect South Portland, she had spent the spring and summer organizing residents to ask the EPA to increase the penalties levied against Global and another company, Sprague, that had also been issued a violation for exceeding its permitted emissions.
"Each of you might be at different places in terms of what you've been following... It's pretty ..." she trailed off, searching for the word.
"Complicated," said Chelsea Conaboy, who was sitting next to her. Zuckerman smiled in agreement. Conaboy is a relatively new addition to the group, but as a mother of young children and a concerned South Portland resident, she represents exactly what Zuckerman hopes to bring to the movement.
Zuckerman and Conaboy quickly brought everyone up to speed. Global's violation of its emissions permit went back years.
In 2011 and 2012, the EPA had required the company to do additional testing on its tanks containing asphalt and bunker fuel. It was the first time that anyone measured what was actually coming out of the tanks, instead of making estimates based on mathematical formulas.
"Global was issued a notice of violation back in 2012. That's when EPA said, 'You're emitting way more than you're supposed to," Conaboy said. "The company didn't do anything. The EPA issued another one in 2013, the company didn't do anything. Eventually EPA sued and said, you have to do something."
Both the company and the state dispute the methods that the EPA used to determine the emissions level, but the state has spearheaded an air monitoring effort. Global, for its part, has supported that work.
Results from six air monitoring stations placed around South Portland, as well as tests many of my fellow residents and I performed using hand-held canisters, turned up troubling spikes of benzene and naphthalene.
Further data revealed a potential problem with heavy compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a group of 100 chemicals formed by the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas. Some of them cause cancer.
The consent decree required that Global do a host of things—pay a $40,000 fine, contribute $150,000 to an unrelated environmental health program, install equipment to decrease the emissions, and put limits on how frequently it heated its tanks and how much product it moved through them. But when it was finalized in October, the EPA did not incorporate any of the comments made by Protect South Portland or the city of South Portland, which sought higher penalties for the company and requirements for additional air monitoring and public health surveys.
Meanwhile, air monitoring will continue through November 2020, including data gathered much closer to the tanks themselves. Monitoring will also begin for PAHs, and the state is planning to conduct a study to determine whether there has been a spike in asthma cases near the tanks.
As the hour ticked toward lunchtime and the window of toddler patience closed, Zuckerman and Conboy explained that the most pressing issue right now for Protect South Portland is Global's application for a new, amended license. They want to see Global's facility reclassified as what's called a "major source" emitter. That classification would mean that Global would suddenly be subject to more rigorous regulation—including having to apply for a federal Title V permit that requires stricter pollution controls.
They were hoping that the people in the room—and lots of others—would show up at a City Council meeting two nights later to advocate for a state hearing about the amended license.
"If we could get a big turnout and have lots of people getting up and saying we want monitoring, we don't want to have to wait two or three years to know what we're breathing in our community and to know that our kids are safe to play outside and all of that ... if we get a big turnout, maybe we can get it," Zuckerman said.
Numbers That Never Quite Add Up
The next day I got on the phone with Jane Gilbert, who manages the state's air licensing unit.
Over the past few months I've been speaking with her, Gilbert has proven to have an abiding patience for the seemingly endless number of questions I come up with (this is complicated stuff!). I'm hoping that patience extends through the day, because I have a lot more.
First off, Gilbert made it clear that we're dealing now in hypotheticals. Global hasn't actually submitted its amended emissions permit application yet—it's due by Feb. 17—so we're going off of what she's assuming they will submit. But based on those assumptions, she says, there's no reason to think they will suddenly be classified as a "major source" emitter.
The state of Maine says that any facility that emits more than 50 tons a year of VOCs is a major source of emissions. Global is permitted now for 21.9 tons, but based on their reporting to the state, they fall short of that limit every year.
Gilbert said the state is counting on the requirements that the EPA included in the consent decree to keep Global from becoming a major source of emissions. "I don't know how those numbers in the consent decree were calculated," she said. "But I'm presuming that the EPA used something to arrive at those numbers such that if it's constrained to that, they have a level of confidence they would not be a major source."
But as she and I discuss each of the requirements of the consent decree it becomes clear: Everything the EPA requires of Global is either (a) already the normal practice of the company or (b) actually allows them to emit more.
The EPA has put limitations on how much product can be moved through Global's heated tanks—50 million gallons of bunker fuel and 75 million gallons of asphalt a year. Gilbert wasn't sure how that compared to past practices—it's not something they usually track—but the good news is that now at least there's a limit where there didn't used to be one.
I pushed back a bit. At my house, I said, there's no official limit on how many Oreo cookies my 4-year-old can eat. If I were to say the limit is now 100, that would technically put a limit in place, but it surely wouldn't spare him a tummy ache.
When I followed up with her colleague, Stacy Knapp, she found that the EPA's limit doesn't do much "limiting" at all. What's being imposed by the EPA is actually about six times higher than the year that Global saw its greatest throughput, 2017.
And as I look through Global's license, it becomes clear: The limitations on the number of days the tanks are heated and how many tanks can contain asphalt or bunker fuel? Already their normal practice.
Then Gilbert told me that when the earlier permit allowing for up to 21.9 tons of emissions was calculated, that did not include emissions from the asphalt or bunker fuel tanks, because in the past, it was thought that the emissions were negligible.
But when the EPA went in and tested what was actually coming from those specific tanks, they had found a potential to emit more than 50 tons. Now, Global is being told to account for those emissions via this amended license, and yet the state says it's not likely to increase the emissions? This made no sense.
As Gilbert and I went through all this, I asked her: if the consent decree doesn't actually restrict the emissions, what will keep Global's emissions from rising?
It's the requirement that they emit less than 21.9 tons of VOCs, she tells me. "That's what keeps them a minor source—the permit," she said. In essence, we have to take them at their word.
And then I learned about the last wrinkle: From 2017 to 2018, Global's reported emissions saw a precipitous drop—from 18.7 tons of VOCs to 4.81 tons. How? It adopted the EPA's newest equation to calculate them, which was just released last fall.
With all this fuzzy math, it's hard to have a lot of faith in such an arcane system in which so little actual monitoring is performed by the state and the EPA and so much is left to the company to self-report.
When I hung up the phone, my head felt like it wanted to explode.
Activists to City Council: Ask for a Meeting on Global's License
By 8 p.m. on Tuesday night, it was the South Portland City Council's turn to make sense of what was happening. Zuckerman and Conaboy sat with a handful of other Protect South Portland members, including one woman, Mindy Hull, who told me she's struggled in the past to find a way to make the meetings. As a single, full-time working mom, the arrangements are complicated. But she was at the meeting on Sunday, and here she was now.
The City Council's attorney weighed in and let the council know that while the state Department of Environmental Protection is not obligated to hold a public meeting about Global's amended license, it has said it's happy to do so. All the City Council has to do is ask for it. The Protect South Portland members' plan was to ensure it did.
I know Hull because her daughter, Carly, attends MaineLy Childcare with my daughter Ruby. As she stood up and read a statement to the council, I couldn't help but relate to everything she said. She described happy drives to daycare with the windows rolled down, singing songs on the way as they turned toward MaineLy.
"On many, many days after making the turn, especially in better weather, my throat would start to burn. Quickly I would roll up the windows and switch the air circulator to avoid pulling in outside air. The fumes from that area would choke us," Hull said. "The air smelled like a mix of petroleum and asphalt. We couldn't sing anymore, and I'd tell Carly to put her scarf or other clothing item over her nose and mouth to filter out the fumes."
Her message was echoed by the other activists, who added their own requests— like 24/7 fenceline monitoring that could give a better picture of what is being emitted by the tanks, and the requirement that Global use technology called Vapor Recovery Units to capture its emissions.
A bald, lean man with a thick black beard stepped to the podium and introduced himself. "Hello my name is Orion Breen, I'm a new employee of Global," he said, explaining he'll be helping build relationships in the community. "I'm not a petroleum guy, I'm a people person."
The name instantly rang a bell. I had wondered why someone named Orion Breen had added me as a Facebook friend a month or so ago. I had taken just a cursory glimpse at his profile before accepting—this is a bit of a surprise.
The meeting carried on.
"Looking at the set of outcomes possible, it doesn't seem like one of them is, 'No you can't get a license, you can't emit," said councilor Misha Pride.
If the state licensing process can't accomplish that, "we might have another fight on our hands," he said, referring to the city's earlier battle to keep tar sands oil from being piped through its port. "I'm willing to entertain that."
'Im Angry That I Wake Up...and I Smell Oil'
It was past 10 when I got in my frigid car to drive home. As the seat heater slowly started to do its job, I kept playing in my mind a moment from the meeting.
Conaboy, the new Protect South Portland member, has been researching the intricacies of the license laws and the Global consent decree and testified to some of the very technical aspects of where she sees the state's efforts falling short. But she also spoke to what drives her—anger.
"I think we are angry that the company over many years violated the public trust by emitting far above what they're permitted to emit," she said. "I am angry thinking about the fact that after everything we've been through I will open my windows in the spring and I will wake up one morning and I will smell fuel in the room where my 3-year and my 5-year-old are sleeping."
That's it. Conaboy's older son, Hartley, became friends with my son, Oscar, when they both attended MaineLy Childcare. She's a busy woman — she's a journalist working on a book about the science of the maternal brain, and she's got two young sons — but she's found time to become a quasi-expert on air permitting regulations.
She's angry because she doesn't know what her kids are being exposed to. She's angry because it feels like those in authority—whether it's the state, or the EPA, or the company—haven't been 100 percent upfront, and it may be her kid's health that pays the price.
I get it. I'm angry, too.