Episode 3: The Fumes in South Portland. The third 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 July 31, 2019.
SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The email arrives on a Wednesday afternoon. “I am writing to let you know that your air quality sample ‘grab canister’ will be available for pick up,” writes the city manager. I instantly feel like I’ve won the lottery. This is what I have been waiting for — word that it’s my turn to sample the air where I live.
And then I think about it, and realize this is a lottery I’d rather not have a ticket for.
As a parent in South Portland, Maine, it’s been hard not to worry about the air here. We always knew it stunk — an industrial stench would occasionally fill the skies outside our home, and especially near my kids’ daycare, and we sensed that it might have something to do with the 120 petroleum storage tanks around the city. But we focused more on the appeal of living here: proximity to Portland, to beaches, to good schools and a strong community.
Then we found out that some of those tanks had been issued violations by the EPA because they had the potential to emit twice their permitted limit of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Those nasty pollutants can trigger asthma attacks and cause headaches, and the worst of them can cause cancer.
Once we learned about that, I started worrying less about the smell as a nuisance and more about whether it might be making people sick.
It’s counterintuitive, given Maine’s reputation as Vacationland, but Maine has some of the highest rates of asthma in the country — 11.7 percent of adults here have asthma compared to 8.9 percent nationally. In kids, that’s 9.1 percent compared to 8.1 percent nationally. Maine sits as the end of what’s known as the “tail-pipe” of the United States — the Gulf Stream carries airborne pollutants from elsewhere and dumps them here on our rocky shores, contributing to the high asthma rates.
Add the industrial presence here in South Portland, and who knows what we’re being exposed to.
Earlier this summer, the city and state launched two air-monitoring programs to try to figure that out. One involved installing six permanent air-monitoring stations around the city. The other took a citizen science approach, doling out five air canisters each week to concerned residents in each of the city’s districts.
Like dozens of others, I signed up. And now it’s my turn.
I don’t know exactly where all of this is heading for South Portland. This coastal city of about 25,000 people happens to be the easternmost oil port in the country, and it’s thanks in part to that distinction that it is also home to a very determined grassroots environmental group, Protect South Portland.
The group took on the oil industry in 2015 over a plan to pump dense, viscous tar sands oil from Canada to South Portland through a 236-mile pipeline — and won. They know the stakes, and how to prepare a battle plan.
The first step is understanding the scope of the problem. Across the city, residents are fanning out with air canisters taking samples. Protect South Portland is also taking the pulse of the city — figuring out how many people are worried, and just how invested people are in taking on this fight. Brightly colored signs are hung on telephone poles all over town, announcing a community meeting the group has called. I can’t really see personal air monitoring being enough to satisfy its members. We’ll find out.
I stopped by the office of Scott Morelli, the city manager, for a quick tutorial on how to take my sample. He hands me a cardboard box with a shiny metal canister inside and shows me which knobs to turn. I’ll have a week to take one sample before I have to return the canister. We joke that this puts me in the strange position of hoping for stinky air.
The canister comes with an odd feeling of pressure. What if the air is clear this week? What if my sample doesn’t show anything? Though I live a mile or so from the tanks, there are many people who live closer—people who worry the fumes could be causing their coughs, their headaches, their unexplained illnesses.
I drop the box onto the passenger seat of my messy 2012 Toyota Prius and drive from City Hall to pick up my kids from daycare — past the neighborhood where we live, past Kaler Elementary School where my son will attend pre-K in the fall and past the petroleum storage tanks that the EPA has flagged for violations.
There are new rituals to this drive — the instinctive rolling up of windows as I near the tanks; the quick smell check as I get out of my car in the daycare parking lot. All clear today — no smell.
Ruby, my 7-month-old, coughs as I carry her out to the car. She’s been relentlessly sick since I returned to work a few months ago, and the mom-guilt weighs heavy on me as I clip her carseat into the car. Oscar, my son, notices the canister immediately and has a million questions, both because he’s observant and because he’s four.
“Is that a spaceship?” he asks. No, I tell him — definitely not. “It looks like a spaceship.”
I explain that it’s a tool we’re going to use so we can learn more about our stinky air, and just like that I have a partner. My mission to understand what we’re breathing and hopefully allay some of my fears is now our mission.
I hope we find some answers.
Over the next few days, Oscar and I develop a routine. Each morning, still wearing last night’s jammies and bed-head, he runs outside to smell the air. “Moooooom!” he yells. “It STINKS out here.”
I check, and it doesn’t — another case of wishful smelling.
Same thing every afternoon. It’s not totally surprising that the air smells better. I had heard that the prevailing winds shift in the late spring or early summer, sending the breeze away from my area and into neighboring Portland.
Still, I’m simultaneously relieved and disappointed. Like I said, I’m not sure where all of this is going.
A Pediatrician Faces Her Own Conundrum
Ruby’s cough gets worse, so I make an appointment to see her pediatrician.
Dr. Catherine Curry has been my pediatrician since Oscar turned one. Like me, she lives in South Portland and has two kids — Alice who is seven, and James, who is four. Like me, she’s worried about what she’s exposing them to.
Curry was only vaguely aware of the smells in the community — something she generally attributed to being stuck behind stinky cars — until March, when news surfaced that the EPA had proposed a settlement with Global Partners, one of the companies that owns petroleum storage tanks here. Some of Global’s tanks — heated storage tanks that contain asphalt and bunker fuel — had been found to have the potential to emit twice the amount of VOCs they were permitted for. The state and the company dispute the EPA’s findings, but have been supportive of the effort to figure out why the air smells so bad.
Curry was one of many people who sent letters to the EPA, asking the agency to strengthen the penalties doled out in the proposed settlement, which included $40,000 in fines and $150,000 to be paid toward a program to upgrade and replace wood stoves.
“As we know, there are concerns about the negative health impacts of VOC emissions — both immediate (headaches, exacerbation of asthma among others) and very concerning long-term effects that include potential malignancy,” Curry wrote in her letter. She wants the EPA to require third-party air monitoring and funding for health impact research, among other things.
When I meet with her, Curry greets me with a big smile and clasped hands, laughing at the sight of my red-headed dumpling of a baby. Ruby sits in my lap as Curry listens to her lungs with her stethoscope and checks out her ears.
She’s congested, for sure, but her lungs are clear. It’s just a cold virus working its way through her tiny system — nothing to worry about. But I am worried. I don’t remember Oscar being this sick when he started daycare. From her first week in daycare, she has had one virus after another — a runny nose, a hacking cough, days of vomiting or diarrhea.
Eventually I ask Curry the question that’s been on my mind since I first learned about the air emissions issue.
“Do you think she’s been so sick because of the emissions near her daycare?”
Curry pauses and looks at me. “Ruby is definitely sick because of daycare — but not because of what you think,” she said. “She’s sick because she’s a baby, and daycares are full of germs. It’s just what happens.”
I feel relieved — sort of. Because I also know that the fears plaguing me are bothering Curry, too. A few weeks earlier, as I began reporting on the issue, she and I met up for coffee in South Portland. I asked her then what she thought about my keeping Ruby at her daycare, knowing that the emissions there seem to be particularly bad.
“I wish I could be the person to tell you it’s really OK, but I feel like I would be falsely reassuring,” she told me. “Maybe it is? But I don’t know. I don’t know.”
In the same conversation, she said she’s faced with a conundrum of her own. “I don’t think we’ll move, but if more terrifying data comes out — I’m not going to say never,” she said. But her house is a large, multi-bedroom home that backs onto a public park—the kind of place she can imagine only another family moving into. “I don’t think I could, in good conscience, sell my house to a new family. As a mother and a doctor — I can’t do that.”
What Curry wants is what we all want. “I want somebody to tell me: ‘Your kids are going to be OK,’” she said.
‘We Don’t Really Know Enough’
As I leave Ruby’s appointment, I carry our collective worries with me — and a new host of questions, too. As I’ve researched online about the health impacts of VOCs, particularly in situations like what’s going on in South Portland, I’ve found the information rather thin. It turns out there’s a reason for that.
“We don’t really know enough about air toxics and VOCs in terms of community-level exposures,” said John Balmes, a professor of medicine and of environmental health sciences at the University of California-San Francisco. “We know a lot about occupational exposures, which are higher and have been measured over the years,” he tells me, but not about the kind of exposure happening in South Portland.
I had called Balmes to learn more about the health risks here. Though VOCs don’t cause asthma, they can trigger attacks — particularly worrisome in a place with high asthma rates to begin with.
The most current state data shows that South Portland’s rate of asthma-related emergency department visits from 2010-2014 was 53.6 per 10,000 residents, compared with 34 county-wide, and 39.7 in the state.
“Kids that have asthma that are going to school near the tanks, they could definitely have exacerbations on days that high VOCs are present,” Balmes sais. And if people are reporting that they’re getting headaches from the smell (which many are), he said that could very well be caused by the presence of VOCs.
“You need to find out which VOCs — some smell bad but aren’t particularly harmful,” he tells me. “But benzene, which is a carcinogen, might be in the VOCs that are emitted from petroleum storage tanks. It’s likely. How much benzene is the issue.”
A New Air Sample
Which brings me back to my air canister. My time is running out.
Day after day, Oscar; my husband, Andrew; and I step onto our back deck and take deep breaths to see if it stinks. Until finally, my week is up.
On the last day, Oscar and I grab the canister and walk onto our front yard. I figure this is the most direct line to the tanks, so maybe it could possibly pick something up. His little hand tangles in mine as together we turn the valve to open the canister. It hisses as it opens fully, and I hoist it up to shoulder height as I’ve been directed. Oscar looks up at me as I hold it there until the hissing stops, and then for another 30 or so seconds to be sure the sample is complete.
He “helps” me close the valve and that’s it. We’re done. Later that summer, on Aug. 20, the city was to present me with the results of the air canister tests. I’m not totally sure what it will show, though.
The smell in the city can be so pervasive. The fear can be, too. The dozens of tanks scattered across the city used to seem invisible — now they’re a glaring reminder of the risk of living so intimately close to these massive containers emitting VOCs.
It’s hard to imagine that anything we learn in August will put our fears to rest, no matter what the findings are. At least it will be something, though — something tangible to frame our thinking.
Until then, we wait, and watch to see where the fear will lead.
Air Monitoring — ‘Just a Diversion’?
It’s standing room only in the Brickhill Community Room. Dozens of residents — mostly women — are sitting in folding chairs, talking to each other as I start looking for a place to perch. Roberta Zuckerman finds me. With her gray-black hair spiked and wearing bright purple pants, Zuckerman is buzzing — there’s an energy bouncing off her. Her eyes widen. “Hi! Come in!” she tells me. She had no idea so many people would actually show up, though she really shouldn’t be surprised — it’s thanks in part to her organizing that many of them are here.
This is, for her, the beginning of something way bigger than air monitoring.
Zuckerman, a retired psychotherapist, is a driving force behind Protect South Portland. The group consists of mostly women above a certain age — Zuckerman jokes about their struggles with posting to Facebook and updating their website — but their war chest is noteworthy.
The David and Goliath battle they waged against tar sands oil was audacious by any definition: the American Petroleum Institute — the association representing the entire oil industry — poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign to stop them, and the stakes were huge. Failure to beat back this grassroots group of flinty Mainers meant the end of the most viable plan to bring tar sands oil to the U.S. East Coast for export. The oil industry certainly wasn’t used to losing battles like this.
And yet Protect South Portland — through grassroots efforts, a local and national fundraising campaign and a relentless presence at public meetings — beat the oil companies, as the city rewrote its air quality ordinance to keep a pipeline company from pumping tar sands oil through town. So far, it has stood up to legal challenges, though it’s currently being heard by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
When members of the group heard in March about Global’s violations — and later about additional violations by a second company, Sprague — they began preparing for a much larger fight.
Finally, with the room overflowing, Zuckerman heads to the front to welcome everyone.
“I’m very concerned about what is happening in our community—about our city and the air,” Zuckerman said, introducing herself. “Alone, I feel anxious, but coming together I have a sense that we can do this.”
Everyone in the room takes a moment to say who they are and why they are there.
One man, there with his wife and baby, said the smell seems to have gotten worse over the years he’s lived here—he’s worried, and has come out to see what they can do about it.
A 15-year-old girl said she and her sister keep getting headaches. Her father wonders why the smells seem so much worse at night.
Men and women from the age-55-and-older community near the tanks say they’re worried about the fumes. One said his pug has started having seizures since they moved in — he wonders if it’s related.
There are people with coughs, with unexplained illnesses, with trees dying downwind of the tanks. There are state representatives and doctors and environmental consultants. Lifelong residents and transplants to the area — including one woman who only recently bought a home near the tanks.
Multiple residents of Portland’s upscale West End — a neighborhood just on the other side of the tanks—want to make sure they’re able to join whatever South Portland is doing. The fumes are forcing them to close windows and leaving them worried about health impacts.
Many of the South Portland residents signed up for canisters just like I did — but many are suspicious that whatever those canisters reveal won’t tell the whole story.
“Forget about the canisters — that’s not going to do it,” said Rachel Burger, the founder of Protect South Portland. “It’s just a diversion.”
There are murmurs of agreement in the crowd.
Protect South Portland has a list of demands. They want 24/7 fenceline emissions monitoring around Global’s facility, with ongoing public notification of results. They want Global to pay for and install specialized equipment—called vapor recovery units—to minimize emissions. And they want Global to be required to obtain a permit for larger emitters.
Chris Kessler, one of the state representatives there, tells the crowd he has had it with the industrial presence in the city. “It is my mission to see an end to this industry in South Portland,” he said.
“This is people power,” said Burger, her eyes scanning the room. “We can do something with this.”