State disputes air quality report

Posted Dec. 14, 2008, at 8:23 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — State environmental officials are reassuring the public about air quality around some schools after a national news report suggested that students in some Maine towns could be at risk from industrial pollutants.

Last week, USA Today published a series of articles that used computer modeling to analyze federal pollution data near more than 120,000 schools nationwide. A number of Maine schools scored poorly in the study, which ranked institutions on projected — not actual — pollution levels.

Much to the surprise of officials in Easton, two schools in the small Aroostook County town southeast of Presque Isle were ranked among the worst nationally. In fact, Easton Elementary School was projected to have the 10th highest pollution levels out of 127,800 schools.

“We certainly have never had a concern like that here,” said Frank Keegan, who doubles as Easton superintendent and elementary school principal.

Jim Brooks, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Quality Bureau, said USA Today used older data and overstated the health threat of a chemical used at a factory near Easton Elementary School.

“I can safely say that there is no … hot spot for toxic air emissions in Easton,” he said.

Schools in Bradley, Rockland, Lisbon, Auburn, Jay, Baileyville and Millinocket, among others, also ranked within the top 15 percent nationwide in terms of potential pollution, according to the newspaper’s model. Readers can search for schools by town at www.usatoday.com.

But Brooks said that the DEP collects more detailed emissions statistics than the federal data analyzed by the newspaper and that he is not aware of any major industrial air pollution problems near schools. A larger source of pollution in Maine, Brooks said, is wood smoke and car exhaust.

“I presume there are parts of the country where they do have problems,” said Brooks, giving the example of a school near a coal-fired power plant. “We just don’t have that in Maine.”

The country’s largest circulation newspaper, USA Today used data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to calculate the potential health risks from industrial air pollution near schools.

The newspaper partnered with researchers at several major institutions, including the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, to analyze the data as part of an eight-month investigation.

The newspaper acknowledges in the methodology statement of its report that the model used to make the predictions had some limitations. The underlying EPA data were from 2005 and the model makes assumptions about topography, smokestack height and the toxicity of certain chemicals that could affect the results.

However, USA Today pointed out the EPA never had performed a similar task using its own data to identify such potential hot spots near schools. The study cited numerous examples of children falling ill due to pollution and of reported cancer clusters near some industrial facilities.

Several Maine observers said USA Today’s computer modeling report underscores the need for additional monitoring and continued pressure on facilities to reduce pollution.

“I think it’s another signal that we are putting way too much toxic materials into our environment, and our kids are most at risk from exposure to these toxic chemicals,” said Matt Prindiville, toxics project director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Brooks described the newspaper’s modeling system as a “good tool” for identifying areas worthy of more thorough study.

But after looking at several of Maine’s results, DEP staff found discrepancies or other flaws between state-gathered data and the newspaper’s “broad brush” approach, Brooks said.

The town of Easton, for example, has two major industries: McCain Foods’ potato processing facility and Huber Environmental Woods. Together, the two facilities in 2005 discharged more than 2.7 million pounds of chemicals tracked by the EPA on its Toxics Release Inventory.

The vast majority of that — 2.4 million pounds worth — were nitrate compounds discharged by McCain’s into nearby waters. The chemical that triggered the ominous ranking — a compound known as diisocyanates — was emitted by Huber’s factory.

But Brooks said the report inflated by 60 times the toxicity of the pollutant. Huber uses a less toxic variant of diisocyanate than the type used in the calculations for Easton Elementary and nearby Easton Junior-Senior High School, he said.

The plant also is farther away from the two schools than shown in the report. And Huber recently installed new pollution controls that dramatically reduced emissions from 2005 levels, Brooks said.

According to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, Huber reported emitting 2,710 pounds of diisocyanates, 146,192 pounds of formaldehyde and 101,480 pounds of methanol in 2005. Emissions of the three compounds all declined slightly in 2006, the last year for which EPA data are available.

Keenan with the Easton schools said he has never seen or heard about air quality problems in his eight years at the school and a lifetime in the area. Keenan said he was frustrated that the report placed his town’s schools so high on the at-risk list and is satisfied with the DEP’s monitoring program.

“I feel very comfortable that they know the level of emissions … and that there is no issue,” Keenan said. “And Huber has always been a wonderful neighbor to us.”

Representatives from Huber did not respond to requests for comment.

Norm Anderson, environmental health scientist with the American Lung Association of Maine, wasn’t as confident as Brooks that industrial pollutants are not problematic at all Maine schools. Anderson also questioned whether enough research has been done on the risks associated with diisocyanates.

“I think the problem is we don’t have a lot of data looking at ambient levels of these toxic chemicals,” Anderson said. “So I wouldn’t be as confident that there are insignificant risks” near schools.

Anderson agreed that pollution caused by wood burning in inefficient wood stoves or outdoor wood boilers and combustion of fossil fuels likely poses a greater risk to Maine residents. The American Lung Association, NRCM and other groups also have waged awareness campaigns about the health risks to children from clean-ing products and other chemicals that release harmful vapors in schools.

“Our 30,000-foot view on the study is that anything that can move us toward a more systematic way to assess toxics in the ambient air would be a step forward for us,” Anderson said.

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