They Built a Life in the Shadow of Industrial Tank Farms. Now, They’re Fighting for Answers.

Episode 7: The Fumes in South Portland. The seventh 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?

The Falatkos headed toward City Hall just after 6 p.m.—Julie Falatko in her car, having just made dinner for their kids, and Dave Falatko on foot, coming from work. Dave’s head spun as he walked. He was anxious about what he would soon hear and wanted to be prepared to respond. And Julie? Julie had something to say.

At the City Council meeting that night, Maine’s state toxicologist would be offering the first insight into the potential health implications of an emissions problem that had, in many ways, rocked the Falatkos’ world since the city first learned about it in March.

The Falatkos spent 14 years renovating their South Portland home to feel just so, with a free library box out front and bird feeders along the side. With four kids, ages 9 to 16, they don’t plan on going anywhere—even knowing what they know now.

Their idyllic home is in a neighborhood that is sandwiched between two petroleum tank farms, each less than a quarter-mile from their doorstep. The tanks have been there far longer than the Falatkos, but they only recently learned—along with the rest of the city—that some of them were emitting far more dangerous chemicals than their permits allow.

These chemicals, called volatile organic compounds, are at the root of a smell that can permeate South Portland. When the air is especially bad, people complain of headaches and say the air stings their noses. Some VOCs, like benzene, are known carcinogens and can contribute to respiratory illness. Others, like naphthalene, can also have neurological impacts. Since the state began monitoring South Portland’s air this summer, both have been found at times at elevated levels.

When the Falatkos tested their air with state-issued canisters, the samples were among the most alarming gathered in the 12-week study. Now, five monitors are scattered across the city, sampling the air for 24 hours every six days.

The Falatkos and other concerned residents worry that the 24-hour monitors are located too far from the tanks to accurately measure their emissions. Many of these people were unknowingly breathing the tank fumes for years. Now that they know that some tanks were in violation of the Clean Air Act, they don’t want to waste another minute.

The Presentation They’d All Been Waiting For

Dave arrived and grabbed a seat near the center aisle as the council chambers began to fill up, putting him close to the podium where the speakers would address the council. Julie walked in not long after and joined him. They scanned the room, disappointed by the turnout but still hopeful there were enough seats filled to make an impact.

Danielle Twomey, a chemist with the state Department of Environmental Protection who has been analyzing South Portland’s samples, projected a map onto two large screens at the front of the room so she could talk about her findings so far.

The map, a topographical view of South Portland, showed each sample location with pins that were color coded, red, yellow and blue. She warned the audience not to conflate her colors with health implications—though red may indicate a sample that’s many times worse than the baseline for the area, it’s not intended to say anything about health. That’s outside her jurisdiction, she explained.

As the Falatkos watched, Twomey scrolled the map over toward their home—toward the tanks—and they saw the pins turn increasingly red. Julie’s heart sank. She pulled out the statement she planned to make later and grabbed a pen. She began editing.

Next came the presentation that so many in town had been waiting for: Andy Smith, the state toxicologist. Tall, wearing a dark suit and glasses, he began to explain the complicated nature of public health studies with an easy tone—a good bedside manner for a community that is, in some ways, panicking.

Smith walked through what the data did, and did not, show. The gist: though some samples indicate much higher levels of dangerous compounds than others, he is not alarmed by what he’s seeing so far.

To come to that conclusion, he explained, he compared the different kinds of samples to different standards.

The grab samples collected by residents using the state-issued canisters had been compared with what are called acute standards because they capture what someone would be exposed to for a single moment in time. These standards allow for higher amounts of pollutants because it’s assumed the pollutant happened in a short burst. Smith said they make that assumption because residents had been asked to sample the air when it smelled particularly egregious. That selection bias, he said, could make the samples more reflective of worst-case emissions.

The 24-hour samples, meanwhile, had been compared with what are called ambient air guidelines. These are more stringent because they represent the air people are breathing all day long, and the experts want to see much lower pollutant loads for longer-term exposure like that.

So, take benzene. The acute health guideline is 9 parts per billion, while Maine’s ambient air guideline is 0.4 parts per billion (ppb). That risk level is associated with a 1 in 100,000 risk of getting cancer. In other states, like New York, the ambient guidelines are lower, and associated with a 1 in a million risk of cancer.

Many of the samples that residents took showed benzene levels far higher than 0.4 ppb, particularly near the tanks (including two samples from the Falatkos’ house), but below 9 ppb.

“Of all the grab samples, even though we clearly have a few that have levels that are quite elevated compared to some of the other ones, they’re all well below the acute health guideline,” Smith explained.

It should have been good news—but that’s not how the Falatkos and many others in the crowd took it.

Because there are no 24-hour monitoring stations near the tanks, it’s impossible to know what the ambient air is like. Are the bad-air grab samples actually a one-time spikes? Or are they representative of the air that people are breathing all day long in the neighborhoods closest to the tanks?

Even Smith agrees, he told me later, that there needs to be better monitoring closer to the tanks.

As he wound down his presentation, Smith explained that the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention is going to continue to monitor the results and work with the DEP, and it will be able to weigh in more fully once there is a year of data. In the meantime, he said, they’re going to launch a study to track emergency room visits from South Portland and Portland residents to see if there are any patterns that could relate to the emissions.

Listening carefully, Julie felt her anger rising. She started crossing off paragraphs in her prepared remarks so she would have time to say what she needed to say. Like many others in the crowd, she felt like a study that focuses on ER visits due to asthma would miss the point.

The Falatkos’ 11-year-old daughter, Zuzu, was diagnosed with asthma a few years ago, despite no family history. 

Why do they think asthmatics who live near the tanks would land in the hospital, Julie wondered. Do they think the people who live there would be less likely to control the condition, less likely to have health insurance and access to medical care?

Julie has long thought that assumptions are being made about the people who live near the tanks—that they’re poor, that they’re irresponsible for living there in the first place. Smith’s proposed study hit a nerve.

Still in his calm, measured style, Smith wrapped up his presentation. In his mind, the news he had just delivered should have calmed the fears of the South Portland residents.

‘This Is Ridiculous to Be Dancing Around This’

Dave Falatko took his turn at the podium and made clear that wasn’t the case. Falatko is an environmental engineer, which means he’s uniquely prepared for moments like these. He had spent hours researching the emissions, taking days off from work to pore through public records and create maps and spreadsheets, which he sent to the city and state officials.

Most of all, Dave was tired of hearing that the city and state won’t target the tanks in their air studies, which are focusing more broadly on the various emission sources in the city.

“It’s sort of frustrating to hear us say we don’t want to point fingers,” he said to the council, his voice heavy with emotion. “Well, I’m pointing fingers. This is ridiculous to be dancing around this.”

When Julie stepped to the microphone, she echoed Dave’s concerns.

“We’re raising four kids in our house. I’m feeling like a negligent parent for living there with our backyard being that big red dot,” she said, referring to Twomey’s map. “I don’t know what we’re exposing them to. I want to stay where we are but I feel like a negligent parent doing that the way it is, with the chronic—not just the acute numbers—but the chronic exposure that we’re having.”

The city clerk let her know she had just 10 seconds left of her allotted time. “I’m sorry, I’m all worked up,” she said, her voice shaking. “I just—I’d like you to look at the tank farms, which as the crow flies are very close to our house, plus a lot of peoples’ houses because we’ve got residences and industry living close to each other.”

More residents and then the city councilors voiced their concerns—worries that the air monitoring isn’t looking closely enough at the tanks, that an asthma study won’t sufficiently examine the potential health impacts, that the state would go on licensing facilities like the tanks that are in close proximity to neighborhoods without adequately addressing the risks.

The regulators from the state DEP and CDC acknowledged the fears and explained what they planned to do about them:

The air monitoring would continue through November 2020, and the DEP planned to expand the program, including incorporating wind speed and direction. Officials have said they will put a monitor closer to the tanks, and begin testing for compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs) which can have troubling health implications and which Twomey, the state chemist, said appeared to be present.

Through the asthma study, Smith said he’ll be able to get street-specific data to try to identify whether there is an asthma spike near the tanks. A similar study in Rhode Island recently examined the area around Providence’s port and found that there was, in fact, an asthma hotspot for children in fenceline communities.

And the DEP is trying to determine whether it needs to re-think the way permits are issued for these types of facilities. Meanwhile, the South Portland City Council members are launching a Clean Air Advisory Committee to see whether they need to take things into their own hands. That could mean creating regulations that would have stricter clean air requirements.

But these things take time. And for the residents living close to the tanks, the promise of future data does little to alleviate the fear they’re feeling now.

“I’m just trying not to get too emotional about this so I can keep talking,” said Councilor Kate Lewis, who has since been sworn in as South Portland’s mayor. “There are so many people who I think really could be healthier if not for all the emissions we are discussing tonight.”

Top photo: Danielle Twomey’s topographical map of South Portland with push pins, color-coded for risk level, indicating each sample location. Credit: Sabrina Shankman