SOUTH PORTLAND — A recent lawsuit by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency singled out one petroleum company, Global Partners LP, for allegedly violating the federal Clean Air Act at its terminal and tank farm on the Fore River.

But the controversy has shed light on several other petroleum facilities on the city’s waterfront that are allowed to emit significantly more volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and other hazardous air pollutants. Exposure to VOCs has been linked to ailments ranging from headaches and breathing disorders to organ damage and cancer.

While the EPA says Global has exceeded its license to emit 21.9 tons of VOCs per year, facilities operated by Citgo, Buckeye/Irving and the Portland Pipe Line Corp. are licensed to emit much more. When City Manager Scott Morelli presented the VOC limits at a recent City Council meeting, residents listened intently.

Some shook their heads in amazement or disbelief.

The numbers on the overhead screens surprised even Mary-Jane Ferrier, spokeswoman for Protect South Portland, a local environmental group that has been active in studying air quality issues. She lives a short stroll from large petroleum tanks in the Ferry Village neighborhood.

Citgo, Buckeye/Irving and the Portland Pipe Line Corp. are licensed to emit 117 tons, 135 tons and 220 tons of VOCs per year, respectively. Facilities operated by Sprague and Gulf are licensed to emit 50 tons each per year. The numbers reflect the weight of the compounds – such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene – in liquid form, before they become vapor. All of them dwarf Global’s 21.9 ton limit.

“I had no idea it was that much,” Ferrier said. “It’s just the last straw. People are angry.”

The lawsuit has riled a community of more than 25,000 that has for decades dealt with but largely ignored odors, industrial traffic, noise and other drawbacks of living amid more than 100 petroleum tanks scattered among homes, schools and businesses near the city’s working waterfront. It has raised many questions about the health and environmental impacts of six petroleum terminals and storage facilities that have operated under government oversight that is now in dispute. Almost overnight, residents and municipal officials have been forced to become conversant in complicated air quality regulations and scientific terms and processes that are both hard to pronounce and difficult to understand.

The citizens of South Portland say they’re angry because the EPA didn’t tell them Global had been violating the Clean Air Act for years before filing the lawsuit last month. Exactly how long remains unclear. The agency also didn’t include the city in negotiating a proposed “slap on the wrist” settlement with the company that many residents say wouldn’t make up for the damage done to their community.

EPA officials still aren’t speaking publicly about the lawsuit, even to explain why the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that issued Global’s emissions license, doesn’t agree that the company violated federal air quality standards – a rift that has undermined community confidence in both agencies.

Now, the city is pursing an alternative settlement to the EPA lawsuit that would make Global pay to establish a citywide air quality monitoring program, conduct a public health survey, hire a public health officer and help city residents install solar panels and heat pumps to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

The pending action poses the most significant threat to one of the largest oil ports in the Northeast since the City Council here approved the so-called Clear Skies ordinance in 2014. The local regulation blocked the Portland Pipe Line Corp. from potentially reversing the flow of its South Portland-to-Montreal pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil south and is being challenged in federal court. The pipeline is largely shut down because Montreal refineries now have little need for foreign crude.

What impact South Portland’s latest actions might have on other petroleum companies here remains to be seen, but some in the industry are concerned.

“At the end of the day, almost everybody uses petroleum to drive their cars and heat their homes,” said Jamie Py, head of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, which represents petroleum wholesalers and retailers. “Air quality is paramount to all of us. But if the tanks in South Portland go away, there will be a lot more trucks on the road, bringing petroleum products from Boston and other oil ports.”

EPA FILES LAWSUIT

Residents and city officials are still seeking answers to questions they’ve had since the EPA filed the surprise lawsuit and proposed consent decree on March 25 in U.S. District Court in Portland. The city has until May 1 to file a written response to the consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. Citizens also may submit individual responses.

Global is charged with storing liquid asphalt and No. 6 heavy residual fuel oil in huge heated tanks that have the potential to emit more than 50 tons of VOCs into the air each year. That’s more than double the amount allowed under its emissions license issued in 2013 by the Maine DEP, which says Global hasn’t violated its emissions cap based on data submitted by the company. Instead, state officials say, the EPA’s Northeast office has changed the way it calculates VOC emissions. Exceeding 50 tons would move Global from “minor” polluter status to “major” polluter status, a category shared by Citgo, Buckeye/Irving and the Portland Pipe Line Corp.

Under the proposed settlement, Global would pay a $40,000 fine and invest at least $150,000 in a program to upgrade or replace wood stoves in Cumberland County with cleaner-burning, more efficient heating equipment. Global also must apply for a revised license from the Maine DEP and take steps to reduce VOC emissions at the facility, such as installing mist eliminators, reducing tank heating and capping product handling at 75 million gallons of asphalt and 50 million gallons of No. 6 heavy oil annually.

All of which leaves South Portland residents and officials with many questions about Global and the other petroleum companies in the city, and the impact they’re having on the people who live and work here. Why are petroleum companies allowed to self-report emissions data? What kind of pollution control systems are required and are the companies in compliance? What level of VOC emissions is OK? And what about carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases and air pollutants?

“I don’t know, but that’s what we’re going to find out,” said Morelli, the city manager. “It’s obviously a much larger issue now and there’s momentum to do something about it.”

THE PROBLEM WITH VOCs

VOCs are chemicals that become gases at ambient pressure and temperatures. Major sources are industrial processes that use solvents, vehicle emissions, evaporation from petroleum storage facilities and forest fires. Many are hazardous to human health and some, including benzene, are classified as carcinogenic.

VOCs contribute to smog and can produce adverse health effects such as eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system, the EPA said. VOCs also contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, senior citizens and anyone with lung conditions such as asthma.

Approved by the City Council last week, a draft response to the consent decree chastises the EPA for leaving the city out of its dealings with Global.

“The government’s actions to date have demonstrated, at best, an indifference toward South Portland’s right to have its say in how the claimed violations are addressed and, at worst, a contempt for the interests of the citizens of South Portland,” the written response says.

The response asks the EPA to provide documents explaining the basis of its complaint and to forgo the proposed consent decree. Instead, the city contends, Global should be assessed daily civil penalties as outlined in federal law, ranging from $32,500 per day for each violation after March 15, 2004, to $97,229 per day for each violation after Nov. 2, 2015.

Furthermore, the response says, “any civil penalty that is actually assessed should be paid over to the city of South Portland” so it can address the needs of citizens impacted by the emissions violations.

The city’s response also asks the EPA to increase what Global must do to reduce emissions, such as installing VOC recovery systems that would eliminate noxious odors produced by the facility.

While the city hasn’t assigned a total dollar figure to its demands, Global, a Fortune 500 company based in Massachusetts, has indicated a willingness to participate.

“We think citizens deserve reliable information about air quality,” Global said in a statement Friday. “We are committed to engaging with the community, including, participating in an area-wide air monitoring effort in coordination with the Maine DEP. We understand that air monitoring will most likely include a financial component. It’s important that any air monitoring produces accurate information, and is well planned and executed.”

GETTING SOME ANSWERS

The other petroleum companies didn’t respond to calls or emails seeking comment. Together, their facilities include land, buildings, storage tanks, pipelines, docks and rail lines valued at more than $72.6 million and assessed for more than $1.3 million in property taxes annually, according to city records.

Their combined contribution to the local environment is murkier, residents say. As city manager, Morelli said he has felt compelled to learn all he can about VOC emissions in South Portland, including from ON Semiconductor and Texas Instruments, which are licensed to emit 40 and 27.5 tons each year, respectively.

In an analysis of Maine DEP emissions data, Morelli found that VOC emissions from licensed facilities in South Portland ranked third overall in the state from 2013 to 2017. The city’s average annual output during that period was 1,023 tons, or about 7 percent of licensed VOC emissions statewide. Jay and Rockland topped the list, with five-year averages of 1,721 tons and 1,502 tons, respectively. Westbrook and Rumford rounded out the top five, with five-year averages of 690 tons and 611 tons, respectively.

“The DEP may say everything is operating within the limits, but it’s obviously a much larger issue, especially when you’re dealing with a concentration of emissions,” Morelli said.

Maine DEP officials have agreed to help South Portland develop its own citywide air quality monitoring program. Exactly what it would look like, how much it would cost and who would pay for it are up in the air.

Some residents say the cost of implementing the program should be covered by the petroleum companies. They include Tom Blake, a former mayor and city councilor who lives down the street from large petroleum tanks in Ferry Village.

Blake, 67, grew up next to fuel and asphalt tanks in the Pleasantdale area from the early 1950s to the early 1970s. He remembers the rank odor of petroleum that flowed through the neighborhood on a regular basis. He remembers as a little boy jumping from the tops of tanks into snowbanks in the winter and playing inside the tanks when they were empty and being cleaned in the summer.

“This has been going on for decades and we have never been able to get good information about their emissions or what they’re doing to us,” said Blake, a former firefighter. “I think a lot of people took it for granted because we lived in a petroleum community. If the oil companies have to pay a fee so we can ensure that we’re breathing good air, so be it.”


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