Air Monitoring Reveals Troubling Benzene Spikes Officials Don’t Fully Understand

Episode 4: The Fumes in South Portland. The fourth 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?

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Standing behind the podium at a jam-packed City Council meeting in South Portland, Maine, Danielle Twomey is in an unenviable position. She is a chemist with the state, and she swore to herself she wouldn’t reveal the extent to which potentially hazardous chemicals are polluting the air unless there was an expert on hand to explain the public health implications.

Now, here she is, in precisely the position she wanted to avoid.

“I was expecting the state toxicologist to be here,” she says to the group, readjusting her gray dress. “I’m a little disturbed he isn’t.”

Twomey and her colleagues from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection have come to deliver the first results of a nascent air sampling effort. It combines snapshot samples taken by residents with “grab” canisters and 24-hour samples obtained at a few air monitoring stations set up across the city.

Twomey hasn’t had time to analyze many samples yet, but the work she has done is starting to paint a picture of the air in South Portland. And it’s not pretty.
 
People in South Portland have always wondered about their air. Some days, an industrial stench fills the skies. When the fumes aren’t bad, the smell is a nuisance. When they’re bad, they can sting the eyes and nose and cause headaches.

With 120 petroleum storage tanks scattered along the city’s shores and a regular stream of tankers coming and going, it’s no secret that the fossil fuel industry has a big presence here. But no one really started asking questions about the health implications of the fumes until March, when the city learned that Global Partners was being fined by the EPA for violating the Clean Air Act. Its tanks, which contain asphalt and bunker fuel, had the potential to emit twice the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than its permit allowed.

It wasn’t long before the city learned that a second company, Sprague, had been issued a notice of violation for the same thing.

City leaders, caught off-guard by the announcement of a settlement between the EPA and Global Partners, jumped into action. They met with the state and the companies, and they  launched the air monitoring program to start to understand the scope of the problem.

VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and cause respiratory problems and cancer, and these tanks are knitted into the neighborhoods here. Global and Sprague’s tanks are in close proximity to daycares, elementary schools and elderly communities—all populations that are particularly vulnerable.

Much to the dismay of some residents, the city asked the state to design an air monitoring program that would sample the entire city, including the areas further away from the tanks. This was in recognition that there are VOC emitters scattered throughout the city. But to some, it felt like a palliative—or, worse, like the city was giving the companies a pass.

In the packed City Council chambers, Twomey’s colleagues make it clear they aren’t targeting industry, but “protecting community.” Some members of the crowd, including members of a grassroots activist group, Protect South Portland, shift in their seats. This is a sensitive point.

Whether they’re targeting industry or not, its fingerprints are inescapable. And if the samples show hot-spots near the tanks, ultimately that’s where the state will direct its monitoring efforts going forward.

“There are things I’m going to present tonight that should be looked at,” Twomey says, beginning her presentation. “I’m going to share with you that sometimes when you’re smelling things, you’re smelling things. I’m going to share with you that sometimes when you don’t smell things, it’s just as bad.”

‘We Don’t Know Very Much Yet’

An hour earlier, I had pulled into City Hall’s parking lot around the same time as Roberta Zuckerman, who’s one of the leaders of Protect South Portland. We parked our Priuses next to each other. I had to hustle to keep up with her—Zuckerman is full of energy and direction and this is her cause: she and the other group members are determined to get to the bottom of what’s in the air and to hold the companies to account.

“I’m not worried about the air results,” she tells me in between stopping for quick greetings to the mayor and another activist as we walk inside. “I’m worried about what comes next. I’m not even thinking about the results.”

Inside, the seats were filling up, even though the meeting wouldn’t start for another 20 minutes. There was a mix of people—young and old, regulars at the weekly City Council meetings and newcomers, too.

Among the faces I recognize are the other members of Protect South Portland, veterans of these battles against industry. In 2015, they took on the oil industry over a plan to pump tar sands oil from Canada to South Portland via a pipeline here. And they won.

The crowd slowly settles before the meeting begins. There’s a palpable sense of anticipation.

“I have three children, and of those three children, my children have neurological challenges, they have asthma, they have autoimmune diseases and they have birth defects,” says City Councilor April Caricchio. She’s the one who called for the meeting. “It’s extremely important to me that my children—and all the children of South Portland—are breathing clean air.”

At the podium, Twomey projects a spreadsheet onto two large screens at the front of the room. It’s a checkerboard of colored squares, with each color signifying how clean or polluted the air is.

“If you see bright green, I like bright green,” says Twomey. There’s a lot of green. But there are other colors, too, indicating where Twomey has found troubling spikes in compounds like benzene—a carcinogenic VOC that can be emitted from petroleum storage tanks—and total aliphatics, a group of chemicals that can also be problematic for human health.

Of the 13 grab samples, two taken by citizens in July show benzene spikes 5.8 and 8 times the level set in the state’s ambient air guidelines. Those samples weren’t taken far from the tanks—they were about three-quarters of a mile and a half-mile respectively—and they show traces of other influences, too. One was obtained next to a train depot and had a clear influence of pollution from diesel.

Perhaps more troubling than the grab samples is what happened on July 26. On that day, a permanent air monitoring station that’s affixed to the Assessor’s Office saw a spike in benzene, with levels 4.75 times the guideline. The readings from the permanent stations are taken over a 24-hour period and represent an average of what the air contained that day. Whatever spike happened that day was so significant, it was still evident in the data even after the lows of the day were factored in.

Benzene is a widely-used chemical in the United States and is a natural part of crude oil and gasoline. It’s emitted during industrial processes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breathing it can cause dizziness, irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors, unconsciousness, and even death at very high levels. “The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that benzene causes cancer in humans,” the CDC says. “Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs.”

Each state has its own standard for how much benzene is considered safe. In Maine, that’s 0.4 parts per billion. In Massachusetts, it’s half that. Some health experts will tell you that no amount of benzene exposure is safe.

“We don’t know very much yet,” Twomey says of the air monitoring. “I’m seeing results that are higher than I expected. There’s something going on. We don’t have enough information yet.”

Residents’ Message Is Clear: Focus on the Tanks.

When the residents get their turn to ask questions, a queue quickly forms behind the podium. Many of those in line hold onto folded pieces of paper where they have typed carefully planned comments and questions, timed to read within each person’s allotted two minutes.

“I don’t want us to lose sight of the simple truth that if it smells bad, it is bad,” says Paul Cunningham. “We need to be looking at the future of these terminals to determine how long we want them to be there.”

“I live about 100 yards from a tank, in the Betsy Ross House,” a senior housing community, says Don Kimble. “What were the city planners thinking when they put senior citizens that close to a tank farm?”

“I experience nausea, dizziness and some immune problems from these fumes, with frequency. I have lots of concerns with what’s happening here tonight,” says P.J. Craigin. “What is the process for actually reducing the emissions licenses here in South Portland? I’m curious as to why Global and Sprague are allowed to continue operations as usual even though they have had issues with their emissions license.”

The message comes through loud and clear in comment after comment: residents here understand that VOCs can be emitted from many sources, but they are worried about the tanks and don’t want the city or state to get distracted from that. They want more focus on the emissions coming from the tanks and more assurances that they will be protected.

During her turn at the microphone, Zuckerman says she wants fenceline monitoring that would focus air sampling efforts on those directly next to tanks, and a requirement that the companies use the best available technology to capture emissions.

“We consider the potential effect of too many liquor licenses, but as a city, are we OK with huge amounts of toxins being emitted into the air we breathe?” she asks.

“More than 1,500 of our children attending schools near the tank farms are being exposed every day,” says Zuckerman. “Can we look them in the eyes and tell them that it doesn’t matter—that their health is the price we expect them to pay to support the status quo of doing business? Don’t we all have the basic right to breathe healthy air?”

What Was Going on When Benzene Levels Spiked?

The next day, I catch up with Twomey on the phone and she tells me that if she lived next to the tanks, she’d feel the same as the residents. “Because of the strong odors and everything that goes with them, and the noxious irritants that they are—they are going to be an issue that needs controls, in my view,” she told me. “If I were living beside that place, I’d want not just controls but state-of-the-art controls.”

I call Andy Johnson, who runs the air monitoring program for the state. He tells me he’s been surprised by the high levels of toxins in South Portland’s air and is particularly disturbed by what happened on July 26. It turns out the high benzene levels at the monitor at the Assessor’s Office weren’t the only troubling discovery that day.

Another 24-hour permanent monitoring station also had a high reading—one at the high school, which is much closer to the tanks. The data from that station wasn’t presented to the public because there appears to be something awry with it—Twomey is still getting to the bottom of that. But just like at the Assessor’s Office, this data also showed a benzene spike on July 26.

So—what was going on that day?

According to Rick Perkins, an inspector with DEP, nearly 12 million gallons of petroleum products were moved through South Portland’s harbor that day, spread across four shipments to three companies, including Global Partners. When Perkins pulls the data on shipments for the other three days that had monitoring results, we find that much lower amounts were brought in and out on those days—the most was just over 5 million gallons.

The process of loading and unloading petroleum products is ripe for emissions, according to Wilma Subra. She’s an environmental health expert based in Louisiana who has worked with communities facing emissions problems. “Wherever you have the hook-ups is where you have the potential leaks,” she explains, because emissions can leak out past rubber gaskets. “And then as it’s filling the tank, you get agitation. It doesn’t have a calm surface anymore. So, you’re causing a lot of volatiles in the headspace between the liquids and the top of the tank.”

It’s a lot to take in.

This is where my life is—where my husband and I have chosen to raise our two young kids, and where we plan on staying. And yet it’s hard to imagine how the city will solve this problem.

For more than 80 years—since World War II—South Portland has defined itself as an industrial city. A place proud of its working harbor, its blue collar chops and the role it plays in supporting other parts of the region.

Our understanding of what’s in the air here is just forming, but if the problem is as simple as “the more product that gets moved in, the more emissions,” that strikes at the very heart of what has helped keep this city afloat. It’s actually not that simple a problem at all.

More recently—since Protect South Portland waged its epic battle against the industry, with the support of the City Council—there’s been a new identity emerging here. This one is grounded in the desire for clean air, clean water and a way of life that makes sense as climate change progresses.

As a journalist, I find that duality fascinating. As a mom, it scares me. My children are among those who have been regularly exposed to these fumes. My son, Oscar, who is 4, has spent his early years chasing his friends on his daycare’s playground just down the street from both Global and Sprague. Ruby is just 8 months old. Soon, she’ll be out there on the playground too.

The city, state and activists appear to have the same intention—they all want clean air.

How we’ll get there is anybody’s guess, but this much is clear: something has to give.
 

Top photo: Andy Johnson, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Quality Assessment Division, speaks to South Portland residents about the air quality results. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

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