Episode 9: The Fumes in South Portland. The ninth 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 — Before the world turned on its head and we found ourselves locked down at home, navigating a global health crisis, David Falatko was putting in a lot of late nights at his office, trying to take on a different kind of crisis.
Each day, when he finished work as an environmental engineer, he would switch his focus to the environmental threat in his backyard. Falatko, and his family are among thousands of South Portland residents who live next to massive petroleum storage tanks that emit chemicals that can cause cancer and other health problems.
Along with others in South Portland, I’ve been fixated on the tanks for the last year, trying to figure out whether they are emitting enough of these chemicals — called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs — to pose a threat to our health.
But Falatko’s professional background allows him to see things differently, and that led him recently to an “ah-ha” moment.
It’s been a year since the federal Environmental Protection Agency filed a consent decree against Global Partners, a Massachusetts-based company that owns some of the 120 tanks in South Portland, including four heated tanks that contain asphalt and No. 6 fuel oil, also known as bunker fuel.
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According to that decree, Global’s tanks had the potential to emit roughly twice the amount of VOCs as the company’s permit allowed, in violation of the federal Clean Air Act.
The EPA had been looking into Global’s heated tanks since 2011, devising tests to figure out what was being emitted and how much. But no one in the city was aware of that investigation until the consent decree of March 2019.
Shortly after finding out about the consent decree, Falatko and the rest of South Portland learned three alarming facts: tank emissions were not directly tested but were calculated using a formula developed by the oil industry; companies self-reported their emissions to the state; and the community’s air quality was not being tested, despite the relative density of the population and the complaints about petroleum odor so severe it could sting the eyes and cause headaches.
Like me, folks in South Portland want to know whether the air they’re breathing is safe for their kids. The state is now a year into an air monitoring effort, but residents want to see that effort stepped up: Specifically, they want air quality monitors closer to Global’s tanks, and 24/7 fenceline monitoring around the perimeter of the facility.
Falatko’s discovery came in early March, when he found a memo that Global had sent to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
As he read the memo, it became clear: There were multiple, federally approved approaches to calculating emissions, and depending on which method you used, Global’s emissions could register as higher than previously reported.
Much, much higher.
Different numbers, different results
The memo Falatko found explained that Global had recently changed the way it calculated the emissions coming from its heated tanks. As a result, the tanks’ emissions appeared to drop — precipitously.
From 2017 to 2018, Global’s reported emissions dropped 74.3 percent, from 18.7 tons — not far from the state-issued permit limit of 21.9 tons of VOCs per year — to 4.81 tons. This was despite the fact that there was no comparable change in the amount of product the company moved through its tanks during that time.
Regulators give companies some leeway in determining the best way to add up their emissions. But there are different ways to determine emissions and disagreement about which is the most appropriate to use.
For about five years leading up to 2018, Global calculated its emissions in part using data from the EPA’s investigation. That generally resulted in from 17 to 19 tons of reported VOC emissions per year.
But in 2018, Global started using a method for estimating emissions developed by the oil industry and recommended by the EPA and the state. Called AP42, it was a way to estimate the tank emissions without measuring them. And just like that, Global’s emissions plummeted.
Had it continued to use its past approach, Global wrote in a footnote to the memo, the 2018 emissions would have been 17.3 tons, instead of the much lower emissions it recorded.
And there was more. When Global calculated its 2018 emissions using AP42, it plugged an estimated value for the vapor pressure of asphalt into the equation. That matters because the higher the vapor pressure, the greater the emissions. And this, it turned out, was the key to Global’s decreased emissions.
The estimated value exists so that companies that don’t know the true vapor pressure of their products can still calculate emissions.
But Global already had an idea of what the vapor pressure of its asphalt was. In 2012, at the request of the EPA, the company took a sample from one of its asphalt tanks and sent it off to a lab to have its vapor pressure tested. And that number was much higher than the estimated value contained in AP42.
As Falatko read through Global’s memo, he remembered seeing documents from the EPA investigation with those higher results. So he pulled them out. He figured out how Global had calculated its 2018 emissions using AP42 and the industry’s default value. Then he substituted the default value for the true vapor pressure results from the EPA investigation.
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By his calculations, the 2018 emissions from just one of Global’s asphalt tanks should have been 17.64 tons per year, not the 0.31 tons the company reported. Extrapolating from that to the emissions from both of Global’s asphalt tanks would result in 35.5 tons per year — even without taking into account its other storage tanks.
There was other evidence to support Falatko’s calculation. During the EPA’s investigation, it had directly measured emissions and concluded that potential emissions from Global’s No. 6 oil and asphalt tanks “alone exceed 40 tons per year,” according to the complaint filed by the EPA.
“It really felt like, ‘I think I have them now — I have some good hard evidence,’” Falatko said.
But would it be enough to get the state to impose stricter regulations?
Nothing is simple
Falatko’s discovery was especially relevant because Global is in the process of applying to amend its emissions permit with the state — a requirement of the consent decree with the EPA.
Right now, Global is considered a “minor source emitter,” a designation for facilities that emit less than 50 tons of VOCs a year. If Global were to emit more than that, under federal law the facility would have to be licensed as a major source of emissions, and would be subject to stricter regulations and required to use the best available technology to remove as many pollutants as possible.
Armed with Falatko’s discovery, local environmental advocates feel they have proof that Global is violating its emissions permit and perhaps even exceeding the 50-ton limit that would require regulation as a major source.
The big question: Why did Global choose to use the vapor pressure value that it did?
Disagreement over a test
Temperature is key with asphalt, because it has to be heated to stay liquid. Global heats its asphalt tanks to 300°F.
And asphalt is an especially tricky product, because additives, which can include a variety of chemicals and even ground tire rubber, are mixed in to help its performance. The additives can also affect the vapor pressure.
Vapor pressure measured by a test would include any additives. But because different companies use different additives, an estimate that’s not based on measurements might not.
I reached out to Liz Fuller, a spokeswoman for the company, with a handful of questions.
The test used to determine Global’s vapor pressure “has issues,” she told me via email. “We do not think it is appropriate for asphalt, because the viscosity of the product causes a lot of issues with the test.”
Basically, she said, the test results are hard to replicate when used for asphalt. Because of that, the best guidance from state and federal regulators, Fuller said, is to use AP42, the method developed by the oil industry, that includes an estimated value for vapor pressure.
But, as I would soon learn, not everyone agrees with her.
Estimation vs. measurement
A few years ago, concerns about accuracy of the test used on Global’s sample during the EPA investigation led to an industry effort to discredit it.
That effort failed, but the work conducted during that study formed the basis for Global’s conclusion that the test was no good, according to Fuller.
As I’ve talked to experts both on and off-the-record about the test, they’ve indicated that despite its flaws, if it’s done correctly, it may still be the best option. And, they note, it’s even recommended in AP42 itself, if done accurately.
I sent Falatko’s findings to Fuller, and she got back to me with this: “We appreciate that Mr. Falatko has put a lot of time into this. Air emissions are very technical, and require a background in that body of work. We suggest you consult with regulators if you have questions about the standards.”
So that’s what I did.
No one knows the petroleum industry like Texas, so I reached out to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to see what it had to say about vapor pressure and asphalt tanks.
Brian McGovern from TCEQ media relations told me this: A test based on actual emissions — if done correctly — is more accurate than using the estimated vapor pressure values in AP42. And if they’re available, true vapor pressure values should be used.
That included results found using the test that was conducted on Global’s sample during the EPA’s investigation.
Public meeting postponed
The work Falatko did in early March was in preparation for a public meeting between the state and South Portland residents about Global’s application to amend its permit.
That meeting was planned for March 31, but by then, the coronavirus was raging across the country. The state opted to push back the public comment period to June 17, and on Monday, DEP is scheduled to hold a meeting with South Portland’s Clean Air Action Committee, a group of experts that has been investigating the emissions issue in the city.
It’s still unclear what the state will do with Falatko’s findings.
Jeff Crawford, the director of the DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality, told me they will consider Falatko’s comments as they weigh Global’s application to amend its license.
He also told me that, like Texas, Maine DEP supports the use of true vapor pressure, rather than estimated values.
But he included some Texas-sized caveats related to the test that was used on Global’s sample during the EPA investigation and whether it is accurate.
He pointed me toward a University of Texas, Austin study that found, after examining all the possible ways to test vapor pressure of asphalt and No. 6 fuel oil, that they’re all prone to error.
But one thing was clear: The default vapor pressure values used in the industry-developed emissions estimation method are alarmingly low.
“These default values have resulted in estimates of storage tank emissions that are too low by more than an order of magnitude, in some cases several orders of magnitude,” the authors wrote in 2015.
‘Safer at Home’?
Thanks to the coronavirus, everything about our lives has now changed. But the smell remains.
When my husband and I head out for a run on South Portland’s Greenbelt, our eyes meet as we suck in the sharp air near the tanks.
At a time when we’re all staying home, I think about kids in this neighborhood who no longer have schools to escape to during the day because of a “Safer at Home” emergency order that aims to do exactly that — keep them safer by keeping them home.
When it comes to the coronavirus, that makes a lot of sense. But what about the fumes?