Citgo petroleum storage tanks at the end of residential Palmer Street in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Robert Lewis-Nash)
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A nearly decade-long fight to regulate oil and fuel storage tank emissions in South Portland could advance to the state Legislature next week.

State Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, is sponsoring LD 1532, An Act to Protect Maine’s Air Quality by Strengthening Requirements for Air Emissions Licensing, which will be heard May 3. The bill would require specific and ongoing testing for the 120 oil and fuel storage tanks around Portland Harbor. 

State Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, is the author of a bill that would revise the way Maine regulates oil and fuel storage tanks.

There is also potential for a related bill during this session, which is being written by the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee.

The grassroots group Protect South Portland has spearheaded the push against tank emissions, along with several environmental campaigns including a pesticide-control ordinance and fertilizer ban. 

Nonprofit news organization Inside Climate News conducted an 18-month investigation into the emissions from heated oil tanks like the ones in South Portland, some of which are owned by Massachusetts-based energy supply company Global Partners. Other tanks in the area are owned by New Hampshire-based Sprague Resources.

Inside Climate News found that tanks holding asphalt and No. 6 fuel oil, as some do in South Portland, pose health risks to people who live nearby, including cancers, respiratory problems, and organ damage.

The chemicals that are emitted from such tanks are known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs. Protect South Portland is lobbying for direct testing, fenceline monitoring, and control technology on all tanks in Maine to monitor VOC emissions. 

Other types of regulated chemicals emitted by the tanks are known as hazardous air pollutants or HAPs. 

Dozens of Protect South Portland members and supporters rallied April 23 at the city’s Kaler Elementary School, which abuts several tanks. Morales joined them and spoke about her bill.

She said that despite Protect South Portland’s work for more transparency about the tank emissions, and neighbors experiencing “intense smells” and seeing smoke coming from the structures, they have “not been given clear answers.”

“We are told that the VOCs being emitted are safe for us and we don’t need to measure them,” Morales said. “This is unacceptable.”

People take part in a rally organized April 23 at Kaler Elementary School in South Portland by Protect South Portland and the No Toxic Tanks Coalition. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Protect South Portland member Roberta Zuckerman said what her organization wants is “definite, clear transparency and accountability” for “what is being pumped into” South Portland’s air, and for the oil industry to be held accountable.

“They claim to be good neighbors, and we’d like them to show us by testing and giving us the data that they are being good neighbors,” Zuckerman said. “And if they’re not, then they need to control their emissions.” 

According to Inside Climate News, emissions from storage tanks like the ones in South Portland sometimes contain VOCs at a “high enough level to violate clean air standards.” Companies that own the structures have routinely underreported the extent of the emissions, the nonprofit said, in favor of estimates derived using equations “developed by the petroleum industry and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

Those equations, Inside Climate News reported in an article earlier this month, are often wrong, but federal regulators and some industry insiders have not taken action to mandate that companies report emissions or measure them directly. As a result, some states do not require companies to track emissions and an “overwhelming majority” of states that do require tracking rely on the equations created by the petroleum industry.

Zuckerman said Protect South Portland has a set of amendments it would like to see added to Morales’s bill. One requirement, she said, would require all tanks within one mile of schools, day-care centers, senior housing, playing fields, and recreation areas to be tested and have fenceline monitoring.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, fenceline monitoring technology involves placing devices at a facility’s fenceline to detect emissions and collect samples for lab analysis.

Zuckerman said Protect South Portland wants the bill to require local fenceline monitoring to be continuous, and testing to be conducted on the city’s tanks four times a year.

If the emissions detected are found to be violating permits, she said, emissions control technology can then be required, which is capable of controlling up to 95 percent of emissions.

The permitted amounts of emissions allowed by the Department of Environmental Protection, Zuckerman added, should be based on the “potential health impacts on the surrounding community.”

Approximately 1,500 local children, she said, attend school within half a mile of the South Portland tanks.

Earlier this year, another group known as the No Toxic Tanks Coalition formed to support Protect South Portland in its campaign to regulate tank emissions. Zuckerman said the coalition now includes 12 “major health and environmental organizations” including Physicians for Social Responsibility and the American Lung Association, among others.

Portland resident Espahbad Dodd, a member of the coalition, last week said the April 23 rally at the Kaler school was held primarily to raise public awareness.

“These emissions just have to be controlled and it’s criminal that they’re not being controlled,” Dodd said. “… The technology exists to control them, the companies just don’t want to spend the money to buy the additional equipment that would be needed to do it.”

Zuckerman, meanwhile, said people who live near the South Portland tanks have complained about various ailments. Some said they stopped biking to work because of the smell of the emissions, she said, while others complained of symptoms like headaches, dizziness, burning throats and eyes, and nausea. Others have said they stopped barbecuing in their backyards because of the odors.

Zuckerman also noted the potential for air pollution to exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms, as reported last November by The Guardian.

Another member of Protect South Portland, Pamela Cragin, also spoke during the April 23 rally.

Cragin said her late sister, Kelly, a former employee of the city of South Portland, died of cancer at the age of 46, seven years after being diagnosed. Both women grew up in South Portland and graduated from South Portland High School.

Cragin was at the rally, she said, because she “could not tolerate” knowing there were children all over the city like her and her sister.

“We’ve been exposed to so many fumes over the course of our lives, and then we just find out a few years ago that they are actually cancer fumes,” she said. “We’re asking for the Maine DEP to recognize that and treat us like people.”

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