Episode 1: The Fumes in South Portland. The first 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?
This story was originally published June 10, 2019.
SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Oscar’s small feet thunder through the house, followed by the sound of our back door sliding open as he runs outside. He’s almost 4 — big enough to play alone in the fenced-in backyard, not big enough to remember to wear a coat on a chilly Maine morning.
I run after him, holding his infant sister as I shout for him to put on his fleece. And then I smell the fumes. They fill my lungs and sting my eyes. Oscar smiles up at me from the sandbox and I’m stuck. Do I let him stay out and play? Hurry him inside? Parenting, I have learned, is making a thousand decisions each day, and on this one, I have no idea.
In late March, the city of South Portland was blindsided when the EPA filed a consent decree with a company that operates industrial storage tanks here. Global Partners, a Massachusetts-based energy supply company that owns four of them, had been violating its emissions permit since at least 2013. The amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) being emitted was reportedly more than double what was permitted, and the problem had gone unabated for years.
VOCs are a range of chemicals that can cause a range of problems, including a one-two punch of health and climate impacts. They can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, damage the nervous system and cause cancer. VOCs can also lead to the formation of ground-level ozone, a short-lived climate pollutant that exacerbates climate change and can trigger asthma and breathing problems — especially in the elderly and the young. A 2016 study found that ozone pollution from oil and gas production causes more than 750,000 summertime asthma attacks in children across the U.S. each year.
When I found out about the consent decree, I hopped on Google Maps to see where the tanks were, and I felt the sudden urge to throw up. The tanks, which contain bunker fuel and asphalt, are less than a quarter mile from where my kids go to daycare. Just under a mile and a half from my home.
I watch Oscar dive into his fleece and head back to the sandbox where a dump truck and three matchbox cars await. His baby sister, Ruby, fidgets in my arms. Take the smell and the risks it implies out of the equation, and this is exactly the life I had hoped to provide my kids. South Portland is a great place for them to grow up in so many ways. There are beaches just a few miles away, and hiking trails where our dog runs off-leash. We know our neighbors and hear the public schools are great.
On top of that, the city has serious environmental chops. It has the largest municipal solar array in the state, bans on plastic bags and pesticide use, and a progressive plan to reduce the city’s contributions to climate change while preparing for the future.
But how to reconcile that environmental consciousness with 120 giant fuel tanks?
Portland’s place as one of the largest volume oil ports on the Eastern Seaboard dates to the beginning of World War II, when oil shipments to Canada were threatened by the navy of Nazi Germany, and a pipeline was built to reach Montreal from the port here. More recently, the company that owned that pipeline wanted to reverse its flow and bring tar sands oil to South Portland’s port so it could be shipped to international markets. A David vs. Goliath battle ensued, pitting grassroots organizers and the city against Big Oil, and just last year a federal court sided with South Portland.
For a minute, it felt like we could breathe easy, literally and figuratively. Now, we’re all just scared by the fumes, and the tanks, and the mystery of what Oscar is breathing as he darts around my backyard in this otherwise idyllic little city.
I’m determined to find out.
We had noticed smells in the neighborhood, and especially at daycare, since we moved here a few years ago. Naively — especially since I report on these issues for a living — I assumed they were innocuous. If they were a problem, I figured, we would know.
The news that Global Partners had been in violation for years came as a surprise to everyone in South Portland — from the mayor and fire chief to the residents who live next door to the tanks. The consent decree filed by the EPA aims to address the problem in part by requiring the installation of equipment that can remove harmful emissions. It also fines the company $40,000 and requires it to spend $150,000 on a program to upgrade and replace wood stoves.
What the city wants is the assurance that its air is safe. Now, as the city begins setting up emissions monitoring (there is none), we’re all left with questions.
What is actually in our air, and is it safe? Why didn’t we know until now? I want to know: Is it safe for my kids to keep going to their daycare? And on days that the air is thick with industrial stink, am I endangering my son by allowing him to play outside?
A crash course in chemistry and public health
Forty hours a week, Claude Morgan is a collections manager at a credit union. Now, as he slides into an outdoor table at Tandem Coffee in Portland, he’s the mayor of South Portland, trying to figure out how to handle this emissions mess that has become his mess.
A long line winds around the coffee counter, as people wait to get drinks and baked goods. The crowds have grown since Bon Appetit named Portland 2018’s restaurant city of the year, and recommended that visitors start their day here.
Though we’re across the bay from South Portland, we haven’t escaped the controversy surrounding the fumes. This part of Portland, the West End, is closer to the tanks than many parts of South Portland. I’ve spoken with residents here who share the fears of their neighbors—worries that their kids are being exposed to dangerous toxins, and anger that it went on for as long as it did. The mayor can certainly relate.
Morgan was at work one morning in March when he got a call from a Portland Press Herald reporter asking him to comment on a consent decree filed by the EPA. “What on Earth are you talking about,” he remembers responding. He said that he’d ask around, but that he was pretty sure this wasn’t something the city had heard of before.
The more he thought about it, the madder he got. How could the EPA have been working on this case for years — years! — without ever letting the city know?
“It was painful, to have that information dropped on us like that,” Morgan says, pulling apart his scone. The day after that conversation with the reporter, he got a call on his cell phone from the EPA. He said it was a mix of apology and explanation — apparently, at a meeting years earlier related to a failed effort to get air monitors in the city, the EPA had presented a slideshow. One of those slides indicated that there were two companies with a total of four violations in South Portland. But no one discussed it then, and that was the only time it came up.
That’s the other thing that Morgan learned — Global Partners isn’t the sole company with a violation in South Portland. Sprague Industries, another energy supply company with multiple tanks, has been issued a violation, too. Morgan and the city’s attorneys spent weeks trying to figure out what Sprague did, or is doing, wrong. He said the EPA won’t tell them or even confirm that the company had a violation.
“In the world I live in, no news, in theory, should be good news,” Morgan said. “This has flipped that adage upside down. One relies on the watchdog to say, ‘Hey, these are now levels you should be concerned about.’ That’s on the watchdog — it’s what they’re supposed to do. But it turns out they have a closed loop system. And it failed.”
Lately, Morgan has been getting a crash course in chemistry and public health and juggling phone calls with regulators and residents who are worried sick. Or worried because they’re sick.
The smell is what makes everyone so nervous. The tanks that Global Partners owns contain asphalt and bunker fuel (a thick, sludge-like kind of oil) which have to be heated to keep from hardening. The tanks are behemoths — three hold up to 2.3 million gallons and a fourth can hold more than 3 million gallons. Tankers carry the oil and asphalt to South Portland’s waterfront, and then it’s carried via pipeline to the tanks. Then it gets loaded into trucks and carried away.
What’s not totally clear at this point is whether the smell is problematic from a health standpoint. From what Morgan has learned, the VOCs may be present when the smell is around. But they also can be scentless. So while we know the VOCs are being emitted, we just don’t know if the smell is an indication of their presence.
There’s another conundrum in this. Global Partners and the DEP have both disputed the way that EPA calculated its emissions violations. They say that the EPA used a new equation to determine that the emissions were problematic — something that’s only being used in a few instances in the New England region. Under the old method, they say, the emissions were not in violation.
It’s not clear why EPA used this approach — EPA declined my request for an interview. And it’s also not clear why it isn’t being applied nationally. If it were, would we find out that emissions are twice what we thought they were in industrial facilities nationwide? And what are the implications of that?
Despite its disagreement with the EPA, Global Partners agreed to the consent decree as a way to resolve the issue and move forward, according to a spokesperson. “We are committed to operating in a safe, reliable and environmentally sound manner, and we commit to communicating openly with the local community, and to responding to concerns,” said Liz Fuller. “Separate from the agreement, we’ve included in our discussions with the city an offer to participate in area-wide air monitoring. Those discussions will continue, as will our efforts to find other ways we might be able to tackle odors.”
As soon as we finish our chat, Morgan was going to a meeting with the state DEP and the two companies. The city, state and companies have been working on a plan to try to get a handle on the air quality as quickly as possible. At this meeting, they would look at maps to decide where to site six permanent air monitors.
The state and city are also starting a temporary air monitoring program, and will be training concerned citizens how to take samples. Those samples will be sent to a state lab, where they will be tested for hazardous substances. That training session was on June 10, 2019.
After a few months of testing, we should have some answers. But we might never know how this was allowed to happen without the city being alerted.
By the end of the day, more news would land on Morgan’s desk. The city was preparing a press release that would answer the questions about Sprague’s violation. It turned out the violation looked quite similar to Global’s: More VOCs from the heating and transportation of bunker fuel and asphalt. Once again, the conclusion that the emissions were in violation stemmed from EPA’s new approach to calculating emissions. In this case, the EPA hadn’t filed a consent decree.
Sprague also disputes how the EPA calculated emissions. Burton Russell, the company’s VP of operations, said in a letter to Morgan that Sprague had spent nine years in conversation with EPA to settle the dispute. In the meantime, much like Global Partners, Sprague said it intends to work with the city and state to address the odor in South Portland.
Getting the public involved, door to door
Judy Kline pulls her silver Prius into a bumpy driveway on Elm Street and puts the car in park. She takes a second to get organized, comparing notes with Rachel Burger, who sits next to her in the front seat.
Kline and Burger are on a mission — one that’s new, but also quite familiar. Burger is the founder of Protect South Portland, the grassroots group that started a movement that defeated Big Oil. Kline was one of its early members. Five years ago, they were knocking on doors to raise awareness about the prospect of tar sands oil being brought to South Portland. Now, they’re knocking on doors to let people know what’s happening with Global Partners.
Barbara Saulle walks down her front steps to greet them. She had met Burger a few weeks earlier and is glad to have someone to tell her story to. Her home, where she lives with her husband, two adult sons and, half the time, her 3-year-old granddaughter, sits on the water directly across a cove from Global’s tanks.
Saulle has lived here for 12 years. In that time, she said, she’s lost two pregnancies, begun suffering from relentless migraines and had her kidneys fail. Her sons both learned recently that they have elevated liver enzymes despite healthy diets, and her husband is scheduled for surgery in July to remove a mass from his sinuses. There’s no way of knowing if the emissions are linked, but Saulle believes it’s no coincidence.
She said the smell is worst at night. “You know to shut the windows, even in the summer,” she said. Last summer she would haul the air conditioners out of her granddaughter’s window so the fumes wouldn’t come in. Saulle is terrified that the air might make her granddaughter sick, just as she suspects it has made the rest of the family ill.
Kline and Burger chat with her about her concerns and learn that Saulle has already sent a formal comment to the EPA. The public has until July 1 to comment on the consent decree, and Kline and Burger want to make sure as many people submit comments as possible.
Saulle suggests they’ll have luck talking with her neighbors, and walks over to make an introduction. Kline pulls out a form letter that allows residents to select symptoms from a list that includes wheezing, chest pain, asthma and lung damage.
The neighbors — Gail and Len Manning — have lived in their home since 1994. Len Manning has some breathing problems, though he’s not sure they’re linked to what’s going on at Global. They haven’t heard much of the news from there, except that there are some concerns about the smell. Still, he signs the letter. They make a plan to show up on Monday for the air quality monitoring training session to learn more.
Kline puts on a sweater as the cool evening air rolls in. Then she and Burger head on to the next house.
‘Muffins and oil’
The phones are ringing at MaineLy Childcare — sometimes it seems like they’re always ringing. Parents and teachers come and go, buzzing into the building. Tiny voices layer over each other creating a sound that’s not tiny at all.
Gina Kostopoulos sits in front of her computer, with a wide smile and her hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun. A few feet away, Annmarie Marshall — Annie — mans her station, waving to parents and kids as she works out schedules. They are the multitasking machines behind the growing operation that is their MaineLy childcare center, which opened in January 2017.
A few weeks ago, Annie was sitting at her desk when one parent, Teresa Medved, burst in. She held her 4-year-old, Cici, by the hand and perched her baby on her hip. “What’s that smell?” she asked.
As co-owners of MaineLy Childcare, Marshall and Kostopoulos find themselves answering this question more lately, and it’s disturbing on many levels. The center is less than a quarter mile from Global’s tanks. It’s even closer to Sprague’s. When staff members complain of headaches or question whether it is OK for the kids to play outside, they don’t know what to say except for them to use their best judgement. This time of year, after a long, cold winter, the kids are used to playing outside for three to four hours a day. Forcing them to stay inside is like punishment.
They aren’t sure what the smell will mean for their business. Marshall and Kostopoulos wanted to create a safe, healthy space for kids (including their own) to grow, and with an emphasis on healthy, natural food and time spent outdoors. They were committed to creating something special—they searched around until they found just the right space. Something they could own, rather than rent.
Marshall filled Medved in, as best she could. “We’re just learning of this ongoing issue,” she said. “It’s the oil tanks.”
Medved looked back at her quizzically. “Ok …” she said, “so what does that mean?”
Give the city a call, Marshall said. “Right now, that’s all we can do. I know as much as you do,” she said. “There’s not a way for us to track what the air quality is right now. We’re using our best judgement. If we truly feel it’s unsafe for the kids we’ll obviously keep them inside and let you know. As of right now we’re going on the trust of the city that they’re not telling us anything, so no news is good news.”
But Marshall and Kostopoulos know that until the testing begins, even the regulators are in the dark about what’s actually in the air. When the city rolls out its emissions monitoring program, the day care partners will be there. They’re hoping they can secure one of the canisters so they can find out for themselves.
One morning last week, when I drove up to MaineLy to drop my kids off, I braced before stepping outside — unsure just how bad it would be. My heart sank. The fumes filled my lungs. I unclipped Oscar from his car seat and went to grab the baby. “Let’s go quick, bud,” I told Oscar, “it’s a stinky day.”
Inside, one of the daycare workers was bringing a plate of freshly baked muffins down to her classroom. Kostopoulos greeted me with a smile — bright and friendly, as always, but clearly overwhelmed. “It smells like muffins and oil today!” she said. “Muffins and oil.”