Walkers and cyclists on South Portland’s Greenbelt aren’t surprised when they encounter a noxious odor, reminiscent of the smell of underground subway stations in far larger cities. After all, petroleum tank farms that store millions of gallons of fuel are adjacent to the path.
“If you drive through Pleasantdale – down Elm and Chapel Street – those tanks are within feet, super close, to houses,” said Chelsea Conaboy of Protect South Portland, a grassroots environmental group advocating for stricter regulation of the tank farms. “They loom right there, and it’s not hidden at all. It’s dramatic when you see it up close and think about what’s coming from them, and meanwhile, there are kids riding bikes around the neighborhood.”
In addition to the odors emanating from the tank farms, recent environmental health modeling suggests these facilities are legally permitted to emit quantities of air pollutants that could harm human health. In tandem with new analysis from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention showing air quality in the city may correlate to cancer rates above national standards, the need to regulate the sources of toxic pollutants in the city’s air is becoming ever more clear.
“The air quality is just horrible, I’m hoping something gets done about it,” said John Pickett, a resident of South Portland’s Pleasantdale neighborhood who was walking with his daughter on the Greenbelt last week, a stone’s throw from the nearest petroleum tank. “As soon as we got onto the trail the smell almost knocked us over, it’s horrible.”
South Portland’s Clean Air Advisory Committee was formed last fall following revelations that petroleum storage tank farms in the city had exceeded air pollution limits for years. The ad hoc committee, composed of five members with expertise in public health, environmental engineering, chemistry, and law, aims to answer the question, “Is our air safe to breathe?”
On Oct. 26, South Portland resident and environmental engineer David Falatko presented the CAAC with findings from environmental health modeling he conducted. Falatko did not perform this modeling in a professional capacity, but rather as a concerned citizen. He lives with his family about half a mile from the nearest petroleum tank farm.
For his analysis, Falatko said he used an EPA environmental health model that considers weather patterns, industrial emissions, air pollution health impacts, and census data to estimate the severity of a community’s exposure to airborne pollutants.
However, instead of using actual air quality data as the “emissions data” for the model, Falatko used the upper limit of what the Maine DEP has legally allowed petroleum facilities to emit. By this method, his modeling suggests current emissions limits are insufficient to protect air quality and human health in neighborhoods that surround the tank-farms.
“How did (Maine DEP) come up with 600 tons per year of permitted emissions as appropriate levels? Or that over 100 tons of hazardous air pollutants can be discharged safely in the South Portland area?” Falatko said. “The permit levels should be determined by human health impacts, and be protective of human health and the adjacent populations.”
In addition to these findings, Falatko’s modeling suggests the air monitoring stations set up a year ago by the DEP are not representative of the areas with the most severe air pollution.
“Current monitoring stations are located almost a mile away from the potential highest human health impacts,” Falatko said. “They’re way too far away.”
The best way to move forward, he offered, is to get actual data for the emissions, which would minimize debate. There should be monitoring stations closer to the sources to confirm the emissions or lack thereof.
“But the way it is now,” Falatko said, “it seems like people don’t want to ask the questions, because they don’t want to know the answers.”
Liz Fuller, a representative of fuel distributor and tank operator Global Partners, one of six energy companies operating in South Portland, said Global “(does) not agree with the findings of the model done without input from the CDC and DEP.” She said Global has “listened to feedback” from the community, and will be monitoring emissions at its South Portland facility next year, and believes the data will demonstrate Global is not a “significant source” of regulated air pollutants.
Another distributor, Sprague Resources, did not respond to a request for comment.
The facilities that surround neighborhoods like Pleasantdale represent just a few of the 120 petroleum tanks scattered across the city. The presence of these facilities has historical standing; the shores of the Fore River have long been home to the oil and gas industry.
As early as 1871, the Portland Kerosene Oil Co. was refining and storing petroleum products in South Portland’s Ligonia neighborhood. By 1922, Standard Oil was operating from the same site. Now owned by Sprague Resources, this location continues to host a petroleum storage tank farm, with some painted in colorful, geometric patterns and easily viewed from Interstate 295.
The petroleum products stored at these facilities emit two kinds of regulated chemicals into the air: HAPs and VOCs.
Hazardous air pollutants, or HAPs, are a group of chemicals known to cause cancer or negatively impact human health and are the most tightly regulated. Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, evaporate at relatively low temperatures and are less tightly regulated; some may cause cancer or harm human health, and some are thought to be benign.
Most of the tanks have storage capacity well over a million gallons and hold a variety of petroleum products for distribution, including crude oil, kerosene, or gasoline. Some of the tanks are specialized to store asphalt and a kind of heating oil called No. 6 fuel oil, which must be stored at 290º-300ºF to remain in liquid form for transport. In addition to their inherent volatility, the heating of these products causes more HAPs and VOCs to evaporate into the air, increasing air pollution and potential health impacts.
Last March, the EPA reached a consent decree with Global Partners. It claimed Global had violated the Clean Air Act by exceeding its emissions permit for VOCs emanating from tanks storing asphalt and No. 6 fuel oil, with violations dating back to 2013. It was the first time the local government had been made aware of the violations.
“The City first became aware of EPA claims that (Global) failed to comply with environmental emissions standards only as a result of an article published in the Portland Press Herald,” the South Portland City Council said in an April 2019 statement. “The government’s actions to date have demonstrated, at best, an indifference towards South Portland’s right to have its say in how the claimed violations are addressed and, at worst, a contempt for the interests of the citizens of South Portland.”
The council also professed confusion, since the Maine Department of Environmental Protection openly opposed the EPA’s lawsuit against Global.
Three months later, the Portland Press Herald obtained DEP documents via a Freedom of Access Act request, that demonstrated the department had long disputed the EPA’s efforts to regulate emissions and defended the petroleum industry’s use of a disputed formula – written by the American Petroleum Institute – used to estimate and report emissions compliance to state and federal regulators.
“There are no requirements right now for these companies to actually measure and report what’s coming out of these facilities,” Protect South Portland’s Conaboy said last week. “There’s a track record here of the state not enforcing these rules with these companies, and now we have evidence that it wasn’t done. Partly, that’s why there was a federal case; the Obama administration said, we want more action on this, and the LePage administration said, we don’t see it the way that you do, so they refused to take action.”
Conaboy additionally noted that revisions this past summer to Global’s emissions license will require the company to perform emissions monitoring. However, the method of the monitoring has not yet been determined, and so far this requirement only applies to Global.
Different approach promised
Since Gov. Janet Mills took office in 2019, the DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality has seen a shift in leadership. Jeff Crawford, a 30-year employee of the bureau, has taken over as director from Marc Cone, who had held the position for six years. Crawford has stated he will have a different approach to the emissions issue, aiming to better inform the public and work alongside the EPA.
However, it remains to be seen what this new approach will look like.
DEP officials have stated that reform of emissions regulations will rely on the findings of a DEP report expected to be published in January. The report – mandated by LD 1915, a bill sponsored by former Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, and passed last March – requires the DEP to investigate “methods to measure and control emissions and odor from above-ground petroleum storage tanks.”
Almost a year to the date after the EPA’s consent decree with Global, the agency announced a second lawsuit against Sprague Resources.
Again, the EPA alleged an excess of VOCs emanating from tanks storing asphalt and No. 6 fuel oil, in addition to claiming Sprague was storing and distributing these products without a permit.
The surprise notice of the initial lawsuit against Global and the following revelations spurred local investigation into the area’s air quality. The CAAC’s team of experts has been gathering information on sources of air pollution to generate policy recommendations for the city government.
On Nov. 9, two weeks after Falatko shared the findings of his environmental health modeling, Maine CDC toxicologist Andrew Smith presented a sobering analysis to the CAAC based on DEP’s most recent air quality data.
Since data collection began nearly a year ago, Smith and his team have been observing seasonal changes in air quality, where factors like temperature and wind patterns can dramatically affect the chemical composition of the air. Previously, the lack of knowledge on these seasonal trends has made the CDC apprehensive to estimate health risks based on the air data.
Now with 11 months of data to decipher, the CDC conducted preliminary calculations of cumulative lifetime cancer risk, which estimates the number of cancer cases a community will experience from long-term exposure to factors like air pollution.
According to the CDC’s analysis, air quality at all monitored locations correlated to cumulative lifetime cancer risk well above the standard of one case per million people.
Portland’s West Commercial Street monitoring station had the highest estimate: 77 excess cancer cases per million people due to air pollution. In South Portland, the risk was estimated at 30-46 excess cases per million people at all monitored locations.
Cancer is the leading cause of death in Portland and South Portland, and in Maine overall.
‘Need for action’
Smith also explained that two chemicals associated with petroleum emissions and combustion engines – naphthalene and acrolein – are widely found above their ambient air guideline, or AAG – the amount of the chemical that can be in the air without increasing the expected cancer rate. Naphthalene was the most prevalent pollutant, contributing to all estimates of cumulative lifetime cancer risk.
Acrolein (not included in the cancer risk estimates) was found at levels nearly 30 times its AAG, per one analytical method. Similar quantities of acrolein are found at most other monitored locations across Maine, according to Smith.
“I think this data says a lot about the fact that we have a problem. And our concerns that these stations might not even be the worst of it, if we now moved some of them closer to the tanks we might have even higher cumulative risks,” CAAC member and environmental engineer Brianne Hicknell said. “Now we know there is need for action.”
Smith and members of the CAAC agreed that regulatory action is necessary, while acknowledging there are still uncertainties.
“How much of this is the tanks, how much of this is diesel or other exhaust?” Smith said.
It should be emphasized that the CDC’s analysis found no chemicals above “acute minimum risk levels”, meaning short-term exposure to current levels of toxins should not cause health problems.
For Conaboy, the modeling performed by Falatko and the CDC’s analysis clearly demonstrates the need for regulation, and for fenceline monitoring in the neighborhoods closest to the tanks.
“The testing that has been done so far is really important, and it gives us a baseline understanding of what’s going on with ambient air quality in South Portland,” Conaboy said. “But the people who need this most are those who are exposed every day,” living right next to the tanks.
Conaboy and Protect South Portland are optimistic that DEP’s upcoming report, mandated by LD 1915, will recommend feasible ways to improve the state’s regulation of emissions. With the issue on lawmakers’ agenda and support from a vocal public, Conaboy sees potential for change.
“The technology exists to control these emissions,” she said. “It’s just a matter of the will of the companies and the regulators to make that happen.”
Freelance writer Robert Lewis-Nash lives in Portland.