Episode 5: The Fumes in South Portland. The fifth 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, Maine — The storm rolls through overnight. Gusts sound like jet engines outside the house as I rock my daughter back to sleep at 4 a.m. By the time we wake up a few hours later, we learn that schools and daycares are closed and half the city of South Portland is without power.
As reports come in of downed trees and damaged houses, it feels like some kind of sign.
It's been seven months since my fellow South Portland residents and I first learned we had a problem here: the petroleum storage tanks sprinkled across the city and the ships delivering millions of gallons of asphalt and fuel into the harbor may be making our air toxic.
The upset started with the release of a draft consent decree—a settlement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Global Partners, an energy supply company that owns some of the tanks here. With the filing of that document, the city learned that Global had been violating the Clean Air Act and that its tanks containing asphalt and bunker fuel had the potential to emit twice the amount of dangerous chemicals—called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs—as their permit allowed.
Fear ricocheted throughout the community as it was revealed that a second company, Sprague, appeared to have the same problem, and as people realized that the noxious smells that sometimes filled the air in South Portland could contain toxins that can cause cancer or asthma attacks. For months, the city and activists solicited public comments to ask the EPA to strengthen its settlement with Global Partners, and the city and state launched an air monitoring program to get to the bottom of what's in South Portland's air.
Now, on this stormy day, the picture is coming into focus of just how bad our air is and the kinds of challenges that lie ahead.
I've spent the last 24 hours staring at a spreadsheet full of the latest air quality monitoring data that show frequent spikes of benzene, a known carcinogen, and another toxic substance that could be even more problematic. This is the second data dump from the state, and it includes data from sampling canisters distributed to residents and a few permanent air monitoring sites.
On their own, the data don't mean much—a jumble of hard to pronounce compounds and seemingly small numbers. The more our air quality picture comes into focus, the more questions I have. I need context from an expert, and I hope my first stop of the day will provide exactly that.
'My Gut Says This Doesn't Look Good'
Danielle Twomey, an environmental chemist for the state of Maine, has spent the last few months analyzing samples from South Portland. This latest round of data has her alarmed. These are the kinds of results that might cause some state employees to keep their heads down and out of the firing line. That's not Twomey's style.
Twomey agrees to meet me at Starbucks, one of the few places that still has power. "I've seen more now and the more I see, it's like ... oh wow," she says. We cram into a table, sandwiched between electricity-less refugees making business calls over their pumpkin spice lattes.
"My gut says this doesn't look good," she tells me. "This is not normal. This is not the background that we expect to see in the city."
Like the first round of data, the new data show occasional spikes in benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, as well as naphthalene, a pollutant that is toxic at far lower levels, making it trickier to test for and analyze, and more problematic.
"If I were Global, I would rather have benzene as a problem than naphthalene," Twomey says. "It's an order of magnitude lower. That's a hard one to control."
Twomey's job isn't just to figure out what's in the air—she's trying to understand the sources of the pollution. She has identified three key sources: mobile, which can include both vehicles and fumes from ships; diesel emissions from the train depot; and the petroleum storage tanks that contain asphalt and bunker fuel, which is also known as number 6 fuel oil.
Already she's learned that the ships may be playing a bigger role than expected. After the first round of data came out, she and I got to talking about what could have caused one particularly surprising spike. When I followed up with an oil and gas inspector from the state, we found that the spike corresponded with deliveries of more than 12 million gallons of petroleum products that day—more than double what was brought into the harbor on the other days when the air had been tested.
"That caught us all off guard," Twomey tells me. "That opened our eyes to the fact that we don't know as much as we think we do." As a result, she's hoping to get a 24-hour monitor set up near the harbor when tankers are making a large delivery.
The emissions from the tanks have also been surprising. "It's much worse than I anticipated," she says.
So much depends on the wind. In some neighborhoods, depending on how the wind blows, the emissions from the trains might seem bad at times, or be undetectable at others. Same with the emissions from ships and traffic.
But in the area closest to Global and Sprague's tanks, she says, it's pretty much always bad. "What happens in that Global neighborhood is they get hit by everything almost constantly," she explains. "The emissions are amplified because you have one on top of the other on top of the other."
She is recommending that a permanent monitor get set up closer to the tanks, as well.
Twomey knows I have a personal stake in this—until recently, both my kids, Oscar, 4, and Ruby, just 10 months old, attended daycare in that neighborhood, and Ruby still does. Even on a day that most of the city smells clear, the stench at her daycare can be potent. That neighborhood has compact streets lined with houses, a handful of daycare centers and schools and a senior housing community. The developing lungs of young children—much like those of the elderly or sick—are the most vulnerable to these kinds of emissions.
My personal stake in what's going on is one part of why Twomey wanted to meet in person to talk. The other reason is that she's mad.
"I'm really frustrated with the CDC (state Center for Disease Control)," she tells me. "I think they dropped the ball." So far, the agency has opted not to weigh in publicly on the implications of Twomey's findings, but the CDC and the state toxicologist plan to give a presentation in South Portland on Nov. 26 to discuss the findings to date and answer questions.
Twomey wants to know what the risks are when someone is exposed to multiple compounds over an extended period. "I want to know, OK, I'm breathing this, my family is breathing this every single day, year after year. Is there a different threshold with all of them? Do they add together? Are they multipliers?"
She's also concerned because of what she still does not know. When she looks at the data, "there are a lot of peaks that I'm not identifying—heavy compounds," she tells me. She believes they are what's 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, and most cannot be identified using the methods available to her.
"As of now, the DEP is aware that there is a potential PAH problem," she says of her colleagues at the state Department of Environmental Protection, and officials there have been supportive of her looking into it. "But they don't understand how complicated it is, or how much time it takes to analyze them."
'Half the Time You Don't Know What's in There'
Since I first started looking into this a few months ago, I haven't been able to shake the idea that what's happening here could be happening in many other communities across the country.
What's been laid bare in South Portland is that the model for permitting and regulating tanks can vastly underestimate the actual emissions. And the emissions aren't just risky for health—they also contribute to the formation of ground level ozone, which drives climate change.
These giant storage tanks are knit into neighborhoods from New Jersey to Louisiana to California, many of which are low-income and are already on the frontlines of the impacts from climate change.
The investigation that led to the discovery in South Portland was started by the EPA's Region 1 office during the Obama administration. And it's just my luck that today, the man who started the EPA's environmental justice office happens to be in town as this new alarming data is making the rounds.
Mustafa Ali resigned from his post in 2017 as his office faced steep cuts and possible dismantling in President Trump's first year in office. He's here to accept an award for his work empowering communities in the face of things like petroleum storage tanks emitting toxic fumes.
"When you see stacks with flaring going on, or you see an outflow with something going into a water body, that gives people a visceral reaction because they can see it. With the tanks, you don't have that same thing," he tells me on the phone. "You see a big piece of round steel and half the time you don't know what's in there unless you're close by and are actually somebody who has seen the health impacts."
More often than not, he says, these tanks end up in low-income white communities and communities of color. "There has been the assumption that they don't have power, that they don't have political influence," he says. "There are a number of factors. Lots of times, it's just because folks have not placed a lot of value on the lives in those communities."
As he has traveled around these communities, Ali has seen the impacts of living close to industry, from pulmonary disorders and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, to high blood pressure due to stress. "I've also seen some cancer clusters, kidney and liver disease—stuff that folks shared were not a problem before living near industry."
'We've Made a Lot of Noise Around Those Tanks'
The event, sponsored by the nonprofit Environmental Health Strategy Center, was supposed to be in South Portland, but like much of the city, the venue is still without power.
The conference room inside a Portland's hotel is filled with people happy to find a warm buffet. Environmentalists, patrons of the organization and state politicians mingle as they eat.
Deqa Dhalac and Sue Henderson, two South Portland city councilors, sit together. Like the rest of the city council, these two have been trying to find out what's in the air and to hold those responsible to account.
"We've made a lot of noise around those tanks," says Dhalac. The council is assembling a committee to assess the extent of the problem and has also been working with the state to design an air monitoring program, but neither of the councilors had seen the latest air quality results. When I give them a quick run-down of what they show, Henderson surprises me with her response. "Hallelujah!" she says. "We know it's there. What I thought was that they were just not going to catch it."
The council had hoped the EPA would strengthen its consent decree, and that that would result in better air monitoring and stricter requirements for Global Partners. But, after months of uncertainty, Henderson says that's not happening: the final decree has just been released.
"It's not good for us," she says. Despite dozens of public comments that asked the EPA for stricter penalties for the company, the final document is the same as the draft. It requires Global to pay $40,000 in fines and $150,000 toward a program to upgrade or replace wood stoves in the county—the council and many in the city had hoped those funds would be diverted to air monitoring.
The company is also being required to take steps toward reducing its VOC emissions by installing specialized equipment and reducing the amount of asphalt and bunker fuel that pass through its tanks. Many of those steps were started by the company voluntarily in September. It's not clear whether that equipment will be able to effectively capture the VOCs.
Global says it plans to work in close partnership with neighbors and local officials. "We have already started meeting the standards in this consent decree and voluntarily doing more because it's the right thing to do and because we are part of this neighborhood in South Portland," company officials said in an emailed statement about the Consent Decree.
As Ali steps toward the front of the room, images of communities from around the country flash across the screen—places like Flint, Michigan, and Houston, where environmental pollution has become a fact of life.
It's hard to imagine that my small community in Maine might have something in common with them, but here we are.
"We've got places in our country where people can't even take a breath of fresh, clean air. We've got 100,000 to 200,000 people who are dying each year prematurely from air pollution," Ali tells the crowd. He asks everyone to take a breath, hold it in and exhale. "We do it all day long, but we're so busy with all the things we have to do that sometimes we forget about it—we forget how precious it is."
Top photo: Jeremy Weir/Rodeonexis Photo
Editor's Note: The story has been updated to reflect that the state CDC says it plans to address the air monitoring results at a meeting in South Portland on Nov. 26.