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.