Episode 2: The Fumes in South Portland. The second in an ongoing series about the growing fears of residents in South Portland, Maine, as they try to solve a mystery: Are the fumes emanating from petroleum storage tanks of the nation's easternmost oil port harming their kids?
Danielle Twomey hoists cardboard boxes and silver canisters out of the trunk of a car and carries them into South Portland's City Hall. She is from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and she's here to explain a new city-wide effort to understand the troubling stink in the air—and whether it is safe.
Ever since the city learned that two local companies could be emitting as much as double the permitted amounts of volatile organic compounds, the community has been on edge. Twomey expects the council chambers to be full, as residents come to learn more about the air they breathe—and how to take matters, literally, into their own hands.
South Portland is a close-knit, liberal city with a strong environmental consciousness. It's also an oil port surrounded by petroleum tanks. Where the shore isn't scenic beach here, it's covered with sprawling tank farms holding a range of petroleum products, including heated asphalt and bunker fuel. And there's the smell. It occasionally fills the air—sometimes to the point of stinging eyes and causing headaches—and it's not normal.
Now, people here are wondering if the smell means they're breathing in VOCs coming from the tanks. Depending on which VOCs are present—and how much—they could irritate the eyes, nose and throat and cause respiratory problems and cancer.
At 6:30 p.m., dozens of residents form a line that winds into the hallway as they sign up to get involved in a community-based temporary air monitoring program. They have come to City Hall to get trained to test their own air.
So many of the faces in the room are familiar to me—my daycare provider, the women who have been knocking on doors to raise awareness about the issue, my pediatrician, who is also a local mom. I'm here as an environmental journalist, and as a mom. This is about my life, too. I'm worried about whether the air here is harming my son, Oscar, who just turned 4, and my baby daughter, Ruby. I sign my name to the list.
We all take our seats. "One of the things I really love about my job is I gather facts, and I find truth," Twomey says. "Sometimes people are happy when I give them information. Sometimes they're upset. A lot of the time, they blame me."
But it's her job, she assures us, to get to the bottom of what's in the air.
"What will we find? I don't know! What do I think we'll find? Different things." She shrugs. The room smiles at her—she's good at working the crowd.
Twomey explains how this will work: She has six 6-pound stainless steel canisters, which have been pumped down to "almost absolute vacuum. There's no dirty stuff in there," she says.
One canister will go to the Fire Department, and the rest will be distributed in the community. The goal here is to understand how safe the air is in the city, she explains—the whole city, not just the areas closest to the companies flagged by the EPA. South Portland has five districts. Each week, a canister will go to someone from each district. They'll have a week to take one sample at whatever point they choose—Twomey suggests when the smell is worst—and then they're done. You only get one shot, she says.
When the week is up, that batch of canisters goes up to her lab for analysis, and another set is distributed to new people in each of the five districts.
Murmurs fill the room, and there's a palpable shift in energy.
"This seems very skewed away from the obvious sources," one man says. He has a printed out copy of the consent decree—the proposed agreement between the EPA and Global Partners, one of the companies found to be violating its emissions permits. The agreement said the company was emitting "VOCs at substantially higher levels than previously estimated," and it required new technology to limit the emissions, as well as fines.
"I share a beach with Global," says Barbara Saulle, another resident. "I'm right there beside them. My whole family has really bad health."
Many people in the room want monitoring that will specifically target the known emitters—Global Partners and the other company that's been cited for emissions, Sprague, which each have heated storage tanks that contain asphalt and bunker fuel, the heaviest oil that's leftover after the refining process. But the city and state are taking a broader approach instead because Global Partners' and Sprague's tanks represent just a fraction of the 120 tanks that are spread across the city.
"The city has wanted to do this kind of a program for two decades that I'm aware of," says Mayor Claude Morgan. "It took an event to trigger the political initiative and will and whatnot to make this happen. But we all live near emitters."
At the same time that the residents are sampling the air this summer, getting a piecemeal sense of what emissions look like across the city, a permanent emissions monitoring program will be set up, with six monitors throughout the city. That program is planned to continue long after the residents' sampling has ended.
By late August, the state will be ready to let the residents know the results of tests on their samples. By then, they hope to be able to give context for what those findings might mean for public health, too. It will take much longer to get a true base-line of how safe the air is in the city.
Scott Morelli, the city manager, grabs the sign-in list and reads off five names, representing the first round of samplers. They all walk to the front of the room to be trained, as everyone else watches. One of the men, Rob Sellin, decides to give his turn to Saulle—given her proximity to the tanks, it seems like the right thing to do.
The meeting ends not long after. Saulle and I talk quickly, and she agrees to let me tag along when she takes her sample. As it turns out, I'll be hearing from her sooner than I realize. She walks out with a canister in her hand and determination written on her face.
The Companies Said Not to Worry. EPA Wanted Proof.
A few days later, I hit the road from South Portland to meet up with three air quality officials from the DEP in Augusta. My hope is that by the time this meeting is over, I'll understand a mystery that underlies this whole air quality mess: Though the EPA notified Global Partners and Sprague that they're potentially emitting twice the permitted level of VOCs, the companies and the state DEP disagree with the federal agency's finding. They say that the EPA used a flawed method to come to that conclusion, and that there wasn't actually a violation.
So — what's going on here?
Jane Gilbert, the air licensing unit manager, explains that the amount of VOCs a facility emits is determined using a model the EPA created called AP42. It allows state officials to plug in variables—like the maximum amount of a substance a tank can hold and the kind of substance—and the model spits out how much emissions should be expected. Voila, that's what goes on the permit.
After that, the company reports its own emissions—again, using the same model. In the case of both Global and Sprague, those numbers have always been under their permitted amounts. Thus, no violation.
But this time, Gilbert explains, the EPA came in and did additional tests to attempt to measure the actual emissions coming out of the tanks. They covered the entire tank in an envelope—basically a big bubble—then blew a fan across the vent to simulate wind, and measured what came out. That's where the high readings came from.
Gilbert says that EPA policy dictates that any emissions tests are supposed to represent a normal day, but that they mimicked a worst-case scenario by testing the way they did. "They don't get to do that," she says.
We wrap up the meeting and I leave feeling a bit bewildered. DEP seems to think the EPA used some sort of rogue approach to find the violation. And yet when I asked about past readings of the actual emissions coming from the tanks, there didn't seem to be any. That makes it hard to have context for the state's challenge to EPA's findings.
When I get back home, I reach out to Curt Spalding, who was EPA administrator for New England when the Global investigation happened. (The current EPA said it couldn't talk to me because the comment period on its consent decree with Global remains open.)
Spalding, now a professor at Brown University, said he's surprised the state isn't on board with EPA's findings. "This kind of work is somewhat pathbreaking in terms of trying to understand the releases from storage facilities like the ones that exist in South Portland," Spalding says.
During his years leading EPA Region 1, there was growing concern about the fumes from these types of tanks. "As I understand it, the firms had said the emissions were marginal, meaningless, don't worry about it," he tells me. "The agency started saying: well, prove it."
'There's No Testing of the Tanks Themselves'
Instead of simply relying on the same formula it had always used, EPA started using state-of-the-art infrared cameras to see emissions, and then required additional tests. The new methods, he says, were rigorously reviewed and tested by technical experts. And the fact that the consent decree was filed this year, during the pro-industry Trump administration, speaks to the deep backing the EPA's approach to this case has, he says.
So if these tanks were potentially emitting twice as much as what we expected, I ask him, does that mean this is a problem in heated tanks across the country, too?
"It's logical to think that if the modeled expectations on tanks are not accurate and the emissions are higher in one place, they would be elsewhere, too," he says. "That's just logical."
So many more questions come to mind as we hang up. How many heated storage tanks are there like this across the country? Where are they? And what kinds of monitoring is being done on them?
Gilbert gets me some of those answers in short order, sending me an email that there are 36 heated storage tanks in Maine—the majority of them in South Portland.
And I get Rick Perkins on the phone—the DEP inspector who works in the South Portland area. He's got a full slate of facilities he's charged with inspecting, which means he only has time to visit a facility when it's required by the permit. For Global, that's every five years.
I ask him how often the emissions are tested coming out of the tanks. "In terms of actual testing? There's no testing of the tanks themselves," he says.
It's After Midnight, and the Air is Thick with Fumes
Before becoming a mom, I never realized how much parenting goes on at night. Silence and sleepiness and the sweetness of cuddling an infant mix together and time becomes sort of gooey. It's late, and I'm rocking Ruby back to sleep—again. I'm not sure if I've been up with her for 10 minutes or an hour. When I finally lay her back down in her crib, I look at my phone and see that it's 1:20 a.m. and I've just missed a call.
There's a voicemail: "Hi, Sabrina, This is Barbara." Barbara Saulle is the woman who lives right next door to Global and got the monitoring canister at the meeting.
"You told me to call no matter what time ... I feel kinda bad ... it's just started to smell outside so I'm thinking about grabbing a sample."
I text her that I'm on my way, throw on a sweatshirt and drive the mile from my house to hers. I find her in her pajamas and a big sweater, with her son John Mackie — she calls him Jay — in a T-shirt and shorts. Saulle has lived directly across a cove from Global's tanks for 12 years, a period in which she's lost two pregnancies, begun suffering from relentless migraines, and suffered kidney failure. Mackie learned recently that he has elevated liver enzymes, as did his brother. Saulle's husband is scheduled for surgery in July to remove a mass from his sinuses.
She has no way of knowing if these maladies are linked to the emissions, but she believes there's some sort of connection. She hopes the canister she's got in her hand will provide some answers. But wait, the air smells ... clear. She looks distraught. "I swear it was so bad before," she says, apologetically. "It smelled like burning rubber and oil, mixed. It was really bad."
The pressure's on. Saulle feels like she's got just one chance to test her air—one shot at figuring out if this is the reason her family is all so sick. If she doesn't sample it tonight, she'll only have a few more days before the canister has to be sent to the lab for testing and then passed to someone else. But what if tonight ends up being the worst, and she opted not to test it?
We decide to wait a few minutes to see what happens. It isn't long before the smell hits us and our eyes meet. "Yep, here it comes," she says. In what feels like seconds, the air is thick with fumes. It's not the worst any of us have smelled, but it's up there. Mackie walks around the house to the shore facing Global's tanks, then comes back to say it's stronger there. We head down so Saulle can grab her sample.
Saulle walks to the edge of her yard, a hill that slopes down to the water below. Across a cove, the tanks are lit up against the dark sky. "Think I should do it now?" she asks her son. "Ok, here I go." She holds the tank at shoulder height and turns the valve. It hisses as it fills with air, and then she closes it tight, turns toward me and shrugs. "I guess that's it."
As we start walking back to the house, the chilly air surrounding us, she stops. She looks worried. "Do you think this thing is safe to keep in the house?" she asks me.
"Sure—I mean, it's not a bomb, right? It just sort of looks like one," I say.
She laughs. "Right. I guess the worst thing it's holding is the air we breathe every day anyways."
Top photo: Danielle Twomey (right) shows South Portland residents how the sampling canisters work. Credit: Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images