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Is there something wrong with the air in South Portland, Maine?

Residents have lived near more than 100 massive petroleum storage tanks for decades, never really knowing if they’re breathing in dangerous chemicals. Now they’re fighting to find out.

Scout, 5, the daughter of Ashley Shoukimas (not pictured), of South Portland, Maine, runs across a field at Bug Light Park in South Portland with oil tanks in the background on Sunday, May 23, 2021. South Portland, a suburb of Portland, Maine, with over 25,000 residents, is also home to several massive oil tank fields within close proximity of schools, homes and businesses.
A child runs across a field at Bug Light Park in South Portland, Maine.Tristan Spinski for The Boston Globe

ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON in late April, about 100 residents of South Portland, Maine, gathered outside of James Otis Kaler Elementary School, many of them holding signs that read “No toxic emissions where children play.” They hung banners with similar messages, urging energy companies to “Be the solution, not the pollution.” Looming near the school and the rallygoers was the source of their frustration: about 20 massive oil tanks, the largest with storage capacities of more than 11 million gallons.

In total, more than 100 such tanks are clustered into so-called tank farms in this densely populated, 13-square-mile city, though not all are in use. They store materials such as crude oil, asphalt, and No. 6 fuel oil, which is used in power plants and other industrial applications. Like those tanks near the rallygoers, many abut schools, along with subsidized housing, assisted living centers, and residential neighborhoods.

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A citizen group named Protect South Portland had helped organize this rally. The group was formed in 2013 to protect and improve the health of the city’s roughly 25,000 residents. It has since become part of the Tank Emissions Coalition of Maine, which also includes the American Lung Association, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Sierra Club, as well as other organizations, several of whom had representatives at the rally.

Attendees assembled out of their shared concern about emissions from the tanks, which contain VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. Several VOCs have been proven to cause serious health problems. But because real-time monitoring of the tanks is not always required — instead, regulating agencies allow reporting of estimates — no one knows just how much pollution they’re breathing.

Roberta Zuckerman is a 70-year-old founding member of Protect South Portland. Dressed in a turquoise turtleneck and matching face mask, she stood behind a lectern and struggled to be heard above the afternoon’s gusty winds. “Tank emissions are self-reported by the oil companies,” she reminded the audience. “I consider that the fox guarding the henhouse.” Members of the crowd cheered and applauded.

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Although South Portland residents don’t know what exactly is in the air, what everyone involved had learned is that when actual measurements were taken years ago, they were significantly higher than the estimates reported by the oil companies. The US Environmental Protection Agency subsequently cited two companies — Massachusetts-based Global Partners LP, and Sprague Energy, headquartered in New Hampshire — for failing to obtain required permits, and for failing to meet applicable emissions standards for VOCs. These invisible, airborne chemicals can contribute to smog and trigger asthma reactions, as well as cause organ damage, and, in some cases, cancer.

After the EPA issued notices of violation to Global and Sprague asserting the findings, years of quiet negotiation between the companies and the federal government followed. Then, in 2019 and 2020, the EPA announced that it and the companies had finalized consent decrees, legal agreements in which the tank owners settled without admitting liability. The announcement of those agreements was the first time that many residents of South Portland had learned that the companies had been cited for violation of the Clean Air Act.

As the April rally continued, the heavy smell of oil in the air became increasingly distinct, in spite of the wind. Resident Bob Klotz, a 63-year-old physician’s assistant and psychotherapist, removed his smartphone from his corduroys and pulled up Smell MyCity, an app developed by Carnegie Mellon University to crowdsource information about air pollution by asking users to rate perceived odors on a scale of 1 (“Just fine!”) to 5 (“About as bad as it gets!”).

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“What do you think folks?” Klotz called out to the crowd. “I’d say today is a four.”

The crowd applauded again.

“Smell my city,” chanted one woman.

“Yes,” cried another. “Smell our city.”

After the rally, Klotz returned to his home just up the hill from the Global Partners LP tank farm, which he says he can regularly smell on walks and even inside his house. He downloaded a spreadsheet that collated other community reports of air pollution in the area. Several other South Portland residents had logged on to the app that day and reported noxious oil and tar odors. Similar reports existed for every other day that week. The descriptions include phrases like “nasty petroleum smell,” “smells like oil was dumped all over my yard,” and “like vehicle exhaust but everywhere.” Users reported that the odors interrupted their outdoor chores, seeped through closed windows, and filled their homes. Those same odors, respondents wrote, caused them headaches, nausea, burning throats and sinuses, and respiratory distress. “Should this even be a residential neighborhood if our air is toxic,” one app user asked.

Klotz has the same question: Is the air that he and his neighbors breathe toxic? He estimates that, in his neighborhood, the tank emissions regularly rank a 4 or a 5 on the app. Klotz says he tried air purifiers, but the filters quickly become clogged with grime and soot and that, shortly after buying his home nearly 10 years ago, he developed a nagging cough that still persists today. He blames that cough on emissions from the tanks, an issue that he says “is undeniable, it is persistent, and it is significant.”

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Klotz also says that what he and other residents don’t understand is why state legislators and federal regulators appear unwilling to step in and prevent potentially dangerous emissions from continuing in towns and cities like South Portland. “The people of our community are committed to not accepting this. We’re trying to tell the truth. We’re trying to ask for help,” he says. “We’ve been dismissed by the industry and even the state. To be denied your experience is absurd and offensive.”

From left, Concerned South Portland residents Ashley Shoukimas and her daughter, Scout, David Falatko, Roberta Zuckerman, Pamela Cragin, and Bob Klotz at James Otis Kaler Elementary School on May 22.
From left, concerned South Portland residents Ashley Shoukimas and her daughter, Scout, David Falatko, Roberta Zuckerman, Pamela Cragin, and Bob Klotz at James Otis Kaler Elementary School on May 22.Tristan Spinski for The Boston Globe

Like many small New England cities, South Portland has long been connected to industry, says Kathryn DiPhilippo, executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. The same area that now houses Sprague Energy’s marine terminal and sprawling tank farm was once home to the Portland Kerosene Oil Company, which built a refinery and the city’s first tanks in the mid-19th century. During World War II, when the city was a hub of ship construction, South Portland became the seat of the Portland Pipeline, which pushed millions of gallons of oil into Canada, where it was then pumped into tankers bound for shipping.

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But after the war, the booming shipbuilding industry went quiet. City officials proposed expanding South Portland’s oil storage capacity by establishing large tank farms, an idea that was controversial even then. Although citizen groups like the Home Safety Committee and People’s Board of Zoning Protection opposed the idea, city voters passed the measure in a 1949 referendum.

For the next six decades, residents of South Portland lived in an uneasy peace with the pipeline — over the years it would send more than 5 billion barrels of oil north — as well as with the growing tank farms. That is, until 2013, when ExxonMobil and other owners of the pipeline seemed ready to launch plans to expand an oil terminal on the South Portland waterfront. As written, the plan included extending the existing pipeline to pump oil extracted from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, down to the city, where it would be loaded onto ships. The plan would also require construction of two 70-foot-tall vapor combustion towers, which look like smokestacks. Although the company said they would produce little to no emissions, neighbors weren’t convinced.

Those residents began meeting in living rooms and churches. They formed the Protect South Portland citizen group, knocked on doors, and linked arms to form a long chain along a busy road, announcing their opposition with printed T-shirts and homemade signs. The group found a low rent office space and filled it with convivial meetings, often over potlucks or bagels from a local bakery. Over time, the ranks of Protect South Portland grew to more than 1,000 members.

“Tar sands,” Zuckerman says now, “really brought people together in a way that opened people’s eyes about how working together can be a transformative personal experience, and for the community.”

The group campaigned against the project for a year — meanwhile, a trade group called the American Petroleum Institute reportedly spent more than $700,000 in support of it — and emerged with a petition signed by more than 4,000 residents and endorsed by over 200 local businesses. Protect South Portland’s work helped persuade the South Portland City Council to pass the Clear Skies Ordinance in 2014, which blocked the loading of crude oil within the city. (Portland Pipe Line Corporation challenged the new ordinance, which was upheld in court; a subsequent appeal is now moving through federal court in Boston.)

Members of Protect South Portland saw the ordinance as a major victory, and the organization was awarded one of six “Local Hero” awards by the Conservation Law Foundation in 2018. The next year, the Portland Press Herald, the state’s largest newspaper, first reported that a consent decree had been reached between the EPA and Global Partners LP.

If the Protect South Portland group members thought their work ended with the Clear Skies Ordinance win, they were mistaken.

An aerial view of a South Portland, Maine, tank farm.
An aerial view of a South Portland, Maine, tank farm.Fred Field / Globe file

City officials told the Portland Press Herald that they felt blindsided by the consent decree, as well as the long-running EPA investigation that prompted it. Chief among the EPA’s concerns were Global’s several heated bulk storage tanks, which can hold tens of thousands of gallons of asphalt or No. 6 fuel oil. Both thick materials must be heated to high temperatures to be in pumpable form. That heating process accelerates the release of VOCs and other potentially harmful emissions, according to the EPA.

In the consent agreement, Global did not admit liability, but agreed to pay a civil penalty for allegedly violating both federal Clean Air Act and Maine state guidelines regarding the emission of VOCs. The company agreed to a number of other mitigations as well, including that it would limit the amount of asphalt and No. 6 oil moved through its facilities in a year, limit the number of total days it heated those substances, and install odor control devices.

A year later, in 2020, the EPA announced a similar settlement with Sprague Energy. In 2011, the EPA had also launched an investigation into that company and alleged it had been exceeding emissions in Maine, as well as at facilities in Quincy and Everett; Providence; and Newington, New Hampshire. In its subsequent report, EPA cited violations of the Clean Air Act as well as state statutes in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Specifically, the EPA contended that Sprague exceeded lawful levels of VOC emissions and, like Global, failed to obtain the necessary permits for its tanks.

What Roberta Zuckerman and other members of Protect South Portland found particularly upsetting about this news was the revelation that neither the EPA nor the Maine Department of Environmental Protection required actual monitoring of emissions at the facilities. Instead, in Maine and some other states, oil companies have historically been allowed to submit estimates of their emissions, which are based on modeling and equations developed by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry trade group, and approved by the EPA. But when the EPA looked at actual tank emissions, it determined that they could be significantly higher than the estimates had shown. In a subsequent memo, the EPA reported that some estimates were lower than the actual numbers by a factor of 100.

“We had no idea these violations had been going on and that testing hadn’t been happening,” Zuckerman says now. “I think we all assumed our tax dollars were paying for regulatory agencies to monitor the tanks and keep us safe. It felt like a real betrayal to learn they weren’t.”

Zuckerman says that what most concerned her was that no one really knew what she and other residents of South Portland had been inhaling for years. The tank farms abut Kaler Elementary and other schools, including South Portland High, which has a higher asthma rate than the state average, according to information collected by the superintendent’s office. And Maine as a whole already has the highest asthma rates of any state in the nation, according to 2019 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A retired psychotherapist with seemingly boundless energy and good cheer, Zuckerman figured she had more time than many South Portland residents to address the issue, so she began once again knocking on doors around the city. She says residents shared similar stories: that they or their children had developed asthma after moving to the city, and that they regularly experienced headaches, dizziness, nausea, and other problems, particularly in the warmer months when the smell of asphalt and oil was strongest.

“People felt alone and helpless,” Zuckerman says. “We’d always known about the odors, but now we felt trapped by the knowledge that they could also cause real harm.”

News of the consent decrees reinvigorated the Protect South Portland initiative, which once again began helping to organize events like the April rally at Kaler Elementary. One of the speakers that day was Protect South Portland member Pamela “P.J.” Cragin, a 56-year-old health care worker whose family has lived in South Portland on and off for four generations. Growing up, Cragin had been aware of what she calls the “terrible smells” associated with the tanks, but she says the odors were so commonplace that no one bothered to talk about them. Then her sister, who had worked for the city and in close proximity to the tanks, developed cancer at age 39. Cragin’s sister continued to work for the city for seven years, through multiple rounds of chemotherapy. She died at 46.

Today, Cragin concedes no one can prove that emissions from the tanks were responsible for her sister’s death. She also says proof of that kind of direct correlation doesn’t matter to her. “Science has proven that the toxins in these fumes cause cancer and can lead to organ damage,” Cragin says. “We know that the companies have been emitting over their allowed limits. Why would we allow anyone to be unnecessarily exposed to those risks?”

SOUTH PORTLAND, ME - APRIL 23: Carmen Haggerty, center, and PJ Cragin, left of Haggerty, attend a rally against petroleum tank emissions at Kaler Elementary School on Friday, April 23, 2021. Both women grew up in South Portland and Cragin spoke about how her sister died of cancer at the rally. HaggertyÕs daughter is on the track team at South Portland High School and told her mom they can sometimes smell the fumes from the tanks during practice. (Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer)
Carmen Haggerty, center, and PJ Cragin, left, attend a rally against petroleum tank emissions at the school on April 23.Brianna Soukup/portland press herald

The regulations governing emissions in the United States are a byzantine tangle of federal standards, state guidelines, and industry protocols. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, the same year the Environmental Protection Agency was established. The law empowered the agency to regulate emissions and pollutants that endanger public health and welfare. It also set the framework for national air quality standards and enables citizens to sue the government to enforce those requirements. By design, the Clean Air Act is meant to build on partnerships between federal and state agencies. “In general, there are several parts of the act where the EPA sets standards based on the statutory requirements to protect public health and the environment,” says Carrie Jenks, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program. “States implement those requirements, but can often use their own authority to do more to limit emissions.”

For instance, consider benzene, a commonly occurring VOC and one of particular concern in relation to gasoline, oil, and asphalt. When it comes to assessing lifetime cancer risk, Massachusetts allows benzene emissions of up to 0.03 parts per billion, while Maine allows 0.4 ppb on an annual average basis, a level more than 10 times higher. (EPA guidelines state that .04 ppb would result in not greater than a one-in-a-million increased chance of developing cancer.)

Monitoring and controlling air emissions can be a difficult task. “Unlike water pollution in lakes or streams, which you may see, air emissions can be invisible,” Jenks says. “Ensuring emission reductions requires emissions monitoring and good data. Sometimes, it can take a community experiencing an impact or raising a concern to see there’s a problem.” (The EPA investigation into Global was prompted by a self-disclosure by the company regarding operations at its Chelsea facility.)

Historically, it has also been difficult to determine just how many VOCs are emitted by any one tank. The industry standard has been what is known as AP-42, the name for the series of equations established by the American Petroleum Institute. The standard lets companies incorporate a set of parameters — such as the shape of a tank, local weather, and the vapor pressure of a particular product — and then conduct mathematical calculations to estimate emissions. Those estimates are then submitted to state and federal agencies as proof of compliance.

But Jenks says the EPA’s enforcement ability is only as good as the data.

“They have been assuming a certain emission factor for VOCs like benzene, and those assumptions may not be accurate or reflective of environmental conditions,” she says. “If those assumptions haven’t been updated for a long time, there might be far better science and data out there.”

The EPA has been encouraging petroleum companies to use better science. In November 2020, it issued an enforcement alert stating the agency was concerned that some companies were “inappropriately” using AP-42 emission factors, when actual data measured at the emissions source would be more accurate. The alert also pointed to both Sprague and Global as examples of how AP-42 calculations can underrepresent total emissions. “Remember,” the alert concluded, “AP-42 emission factors should only be used as a last resort. Even then the facility assumes all risk associated with their use!”

Despite this concern, the EPA, along with Maine and other state departments of environmental protection, still allows the reporting of AP-42 emissions estimates when other methods aren’t available. Spokespeople at Global and Sprague both say that they intend to continue using these calculations to report their emission levels, in compliance with requirements.

David Falatko is a licensed environmental engineer and member of the Protect South Portland group. He conducted his own calculations of emissions at Global tanks, using both the AP-42 estimates and actual readings, and says he found the company’s AP-42 assumptions led to underreported emissions. The company denies this: “Global Partners does not underreport emissions,” Catie Kerns, vice president of external communications for Global Partners, wrote in an e-mail. “We use methods approved by state and federal regulators at the time of compliance.”

Falatko sent a detailed account of his calculations to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, but says he’s received little response. “Maine DEP has not had a good track record of monitoring or following through with investigations,” Falatko says. “It feels like they are stonewalling.” (A Maine DEP spokesperson says they read Falatko’s report but believe the department is following protocols.)

After residents of South Portland heard about the higher emissions from Global and Sprague and that they and other tank owners were not required to conduct testing of actual emissions, city officials asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to conduct up-to-date tests of air quality. The city requested that the DEP do so by placing a testing device in each of five voting districts, which the DEP did. A department representative, however, says it would have rather chosen locations related to airflow and known emissions sources, rather than political boundaries. DEP sampling done in 2019 and 2020 determined that a VOC called naphthalene exceeded acceptable state levels.

Dr. David Carpenter, an environmental health expert and director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, reviewed the testing results as a volunteer at the invitation of the Protect South Portland group. He says little scientific research has been conducted on the health effects of naphthalene, and so its potential dangers are almost entirely unknown. What is clear, he says, is that all VOCs trigger respiratory ailments and that benzene is a known carcinogen. Just because the observed levels of all VOCs but naphthalene in South Portland were within state guidelines, he adds, does not mean that they are safe.

“The EPA has been very clear that no level of benzene is safe,” Carpenter says. “State standards do not establish a boundary between safe and not safe, but rather what that state believes is achievable. I find that obscene, but it’s the reality of the world.”

Petroleum storage tanks sit alongside a residential neighborhood in South Portland.
Petroleum storage tanks sit alongside a residential neighborhood in South Portland.Tristan Spinski for The Boston Globe

Andy Johnson is the director of the Division of Air Quality Assessment for Maine, based within the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. He says that the DEP has recently broadened its testing capacity in South Portland, including by bringing in a mobile unit to park at various places along the fence line of the tank farms. Johnson is hopeful that this expanded monitoring will provide a more accurate account of what is really being emitted into the city’s air.

Johnson also points out that VOCs, and benzene in particular, can be emitted by a variety of sources, including automobiles. South Portland is bisected by Interstate 295, a notoriously busy stretch of highway. It is also home to the state’s biggest airport, as well as several large distribution centers, which rely upon both rail traffic and 18-wheelers, two other contributors of benzene. Because of state quarantine restrictions during the pandemic, emissions from those sources have likely been lower than in a typical year.

Although those factors add up, permits in the state are issued only in terms of a particular facility or tank, and not with overall emissions in mind. That is a common approach nationwide, says Jenks of Harvard, adding that the Clean Air Act hasn’t historically been used to consider cumulative impacts. But she’s hopeful that the Biden administration’s commitment to environmental justice and protecting communities overburdened by pollution will begin to change that, though she also notes that regulatory changes happen slowly.

Members of Protect South Portland are well aware of that pace. As of press time, Maine lawmakers were crafting legislation that would increase testing and require real-time monitoring of tanks, which is already required for facilities such as oil refineries. Many in the city say that they would like to see even more action taken, such as limits based on health impacts. They would also like data from monitoring made available to South Portland residents.

Ashley Shoukimas, an elementary school art teacher, is one such resident. She attended the April rally with her two young children. When they’re at home, Shoukimas says the smell of asphalt and oil is often overwhelming. When she was pregnant, she says, she would often be woken up at night by the smell and couldn’t get back to sleep, fearing chemicals might be harming her unborn child. Shoukimas felt like it was important to bring her kids — one is now 6 years old, the other is 11 months — to the rally to be a part of the civic movement for cleaner air. But as the smell of asphalt and tar became stronger that afternoon, she began to worry she had put them in danger.

“I am fortunate to be able to buy healthy food and VOC-free paint for the walls in my children’s rooms,” she says. “It’s infuriating to me that I may be hurting my kids by just having them outside.”

After the consent decrees with the EPA were announced, the state of Maine revised its permits to require that Global and Sprague conduct some empirical testing. Sprague, whose decree was finalized in 2020, was still working on implementing that plan as of press time. A spokesperson for Global, whose decree was finalized in 2019, says that it is finalizing protocols with the DEP and intends to contract with an independent lab to test its tanks once per year, in compliance with its permit.

That plan is laughable, Shoukimas says. “How can you possibly know the baseline facts if you are just testing once a year?” She points to the wide temperature swings New England is famous for, as well as the variability of tank levels and the movement of oil and asphalt, all of which create great fluctuations in emission levels.

“We don’t get to live here just once a year,” she says. “Families are breathing this air every single day.”


Kathryn Miles is a journalist based in Portland, Maine, and the author of four books, including Quakeland: On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.