This story has been updated with comment about emergency preparedness from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Episode 6: The Fumes in South Portland. The sixth 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?
If you were to straighten out the lines of Maine’s craggy shore, stretch out all the tiny coves and inlets until they were taut, the sum total of its shoreline would be longer than California’s.
All that shoreline, coiled up in knots, provides for the heart of this state—the fishing industry, the tourism, the ports.
When my husband and I brought our Brooklyn-born son back to visit family in Maine for the first time, we dipped his toes into the water off Cousin’s Island and called it his baptism. Now at four, if we take our eyes off him for a second at South Portland’s Willard Beach, he’s knee deep, no matter how cold the air may feel.
Our lives, like so many who live here, are inextricably linked to the cold, rushing waters of the Gulf of Maine. It’s part of what endears us to this place. But right now, I’m wondering if it’s also what makes us vulnerable.
In South Portland, a liberal city of 25,000 that also happens to be the nation’s northernmost oil port, we talk a lot about the air.
It started seven years ago, when the city was fighting to keep Canadian tar sands oil from being shipped through its port. Local environmentalists worked with the city to draft the so-called Clear Skies Ordinance and won the pipeline battle, keeping the tar sands out.
We moved here not long after, buying our home while I was in the midst of reporting on South Portland’s David-and-Goliath battle. Then, back in March, the other shoe dropped. We learned that some of the 120-plus petroleum storage tanks in the city could be emitting as much as double the amount of dangerous emissions they were licensed for. All of a sudden, people started putting two and two together: The air near the tanks stinks, and sometimes it’s so bad it causes headaches and stings the nose.
The state began an air monitoring program in early summer, and what we’ve learned since then has been, well, alarming. The emissions of known carcinogens like benzene and naphthalene are, at times, present at levels that concern even the state’s chemist.
I walked into a City Council meeting last week with all this swimming in my head—wondering where the data we’re gathering will lead us, looking forward to learning what the potential health impacts of the emissions might be.
But if I walked in thinking about the air, I’d soon be thinking about the water. I’ve always known the seas are rising. I just wasn’t aware of what kind of threat that could pose for the tanks—and, maybe, for us.
One of the agenda items I was curious about had to do with emergency planning. A local activist named Roberta Zuckerman had mentioned to me a number of times that she’s concerned about what would happen in the event of an emergency. How prepared are we for a major incident at the tanks? Is there a plan?
Turns out, she was right to wonder.
In an Emergency, How Will People Know If the Air Is Safe?
South Portland Fire Chief James Wilson took to the podium to address how the city would respond in an emergency, including one at the tanks. He discussed various procedures and tools, where people might go for shelter, how they might learn that something’s wrong.
But how would the department measure whether the air is safe, some of the residents wanted to know. And what if there was another kind of emergency, like a flood or a hurricane?
“When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, residents complained of strong gasoline odors,” Zuckerman said. “Do we know what levels of emissions would indicate a need to shelter in place? And what level of emissions would need an evacuation?”
Wilson responded that South Portland has some of the best detection devices in Maine. “That being said, it’s not like Star Trek,” he said. “I’m not going to wave my wand and know exactly what we’re dealing with.”
Different VOCs are potent at different levels. Sometimes you’re looking at parts per million, and sometimes it’s parts per billion—an order of magnitude smaller. So two parts per million could indicate a reasonable, non-risky amount of several VOCs, such as propylene or methyl ethyl ketone. Or it could indicate a massive—and dangerous—spike in VOCs that are risky at very low levels, such as benzene or naphthalene.
After Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Houston area in 2017, causing tank failures at a Valero Refinery, the Houston Health Department measured benzene levels as high as 324 parts per billion. That’s three times the exposure level at which workers are recommended to wear safety gear. Using the tool that the South Portland Fire Department relies on, it would barely register as a blip.
The meeting wound down a little after 10 p.m., and I walked out with Zuckerman and a few other local grassroots activists. As we bundled to head into the chilly evening, we chatted about some of our lingering questions, finding we were walking out with more than we had had when we walked in.
The Oil Tanks and Sea Level Rise
There was one scenario that hadn’t come up in the council meeting—what about sea level rise? If death and taxes are the two sure things in life, I’d argue that rising seas have become a third. (Though how much, of course, still depends on how mankind responds to climate change.)
Back at home, I plugged “South Portland” into a tool developed by Climate Central called Surging Seas. It uses models with the best available science (from the 2018 National Climate Assessment) to look at sea level rise and associated risks at a very granular level.
The results surprised me. Using a medium scenario for sea level rise, there is a 27 percent chance of at least one flood of 5 feet above the current high tide line happening here between now and 2050. By 2060, that risk jumps to 69 percent. According to Climate Central, a flood of that size would bring water up past some of the tanks owned by Citgo and Global Partners, as well as South Portland Terminal, which partners with Irving and Buckeye Partners.
So, what does that mean? The tanks are designed to keep the contents in—does that mean they can also keep water from intruding?
Along the Gulf Coast, petroleum tanks have suffered catastrophic failures in extreme weather. When over 50 inches of rain fell on Houston during Hurricane Harvey, there were failures at 14 tanks with floating roofs, which are meant to rise and fall as the product is filled or depleted. It turned out they were designed to drain just 10 inches of rain in a 24 hour period, and the Harvey rainfall was far higher. The roofs sunk, in some cases allowing the chemicals inside to escape.
Other tanks ruptured as flood waters surrounded them. An Associated Press analysis found that more than two dozen storage tanks failed, spilling at least 145,000 gallons of fuel and spewing toxic pollutants into the air.
South Portland is not Houston. We have a fraction of the industry presence, and we’re not in hurricane alley. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that risks exist here, too. I wanted to know just how well prepared we are.
My first call was to the state emergency management agency. They told me to call the county. The cheery person on the other end of the phone told me the response would be handled locally and directed me back home — to Fire Chief Wilson.
Wilson said he’s aware of the projections and is working with the city’s sustainability officer to plan. But he also didn’t seem overly concerned. “Five feet obviously wouldn’t submerge the tanks,” he told me. “They’re 60, 70 feet high.”
And each tank has a 10-15 foot berm, he said. Those are intended to keep the contents of the tanks from spreading in the event of a spill, but he said he thought it would also keep rising seas out. “I think five feet of water is not going to be a huge issue,” he said. “But if it happens repeatedly, a couple times a year, that could be a concern.”
I reached out to Global Partners to see if they had someone I could talk to. Instead, they emailed a response back: “This facility has detailed emergency response plans, which are submitted to and approved by the US Coast Guard and EPA. Those agencies require annual emergency preparedness drills, and they complete a thorough review of the plans every five years. These plans include specific procedures related to preparation of the terminal for natural phenomenon including hurricanes and flooding.”
David Madore, the spokesman for Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, confirmed that oil facilities work to prepare for—and prevent—releases if there’s a flood. They have containment boom on site, he said, and the companies train with the Coast Guard, the DEP and the Maine Emergency Management Agency. “In the event of a catastrophic incident,” Madore said, “the National Oil Pollution Fund and Maine Ground and Surface Waters Clean-up and Response Fund can be accessed to bring additional control and clean-up resources to help protect public health and environment.”
Then I followed up with the mayor, Claude Morgan, who lives on a street that could be underwater due to sea level rise.
“If lots of tanks went in a big storm, I don’t know if we would be prepared to handle that,” he told me. “Could it be contained? Probably, but what’s the damage after? It’s serious stuff, and we know it. We don’t have our heads in the sand, but we can’t snap our fingers and fix it overnight.”
He sounded skeptical about Wilson’s belief that the berms could help mitigate flooding around the tanks. “Just casually eye-balling the berms, they’re not like levees,” he said, “and we know even levees break.”
“As the world heats, our winds are going to get wilder and wilder, and I’m not sure that those tanks were built for those levels of wind,” Morgan said. “Would they fail catastrophically under certain air pressures? Anything is possible.”
As we continued talking, Morgan referenced the future of the city—one that, someday, likely won’t include the tanks. While he doesn’t believe in trying to regulate the tank farms out of the city, he can envision a future without them. “We will enter into another era—an era where fossil fuel is not the king. … I don’t know if it’s 10 years from now or 100 years from now,” he said.
In the meantime, the water is still rising.
“It seems irresponsible not to be looking at all the knowns on the horizon,” Morgan said. “While the ground is dry, that’s when you prepare—it’s not in the middle of the storm.”
Top photo: Mayor Claude Morgan stands near a petroleum tank farm in South Portland. Credit: Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images