A dispute between federal and state agencies over methods of estimating air pollution from petroleum storage tanks – including those owned by Global Partners LP along the Fore River, above – helped to keep the public in the dark about potential health risks and stoked anger and fear in South Portland neighborhoods. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine was wrong to fight a federal crackdown on hazardous emissions from petroleum storage tanks in South Portland and Searsport, a state official now admits, but there is still no consensus on how to safeguard the public from air pollution produced by oil facilities across the United States.

For much of the last decade, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection sided with oil companies and defended a widely disputed method of estimating air pollution from storage tanks that was developed by the petroleum industry, according to documents obtained by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram under a Freedom of Access Act request.

Records show that from 2011 through early 2019, the state agency ignored, discredited and even fought the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to rein in hazardous emissions from massive heated tanks that store asphalt and No. 6 residual heavy fuel oil.

The dispute between government agencies helped to keep the public in the dark about the potential health threat and continues to stoke anger, fear and confusion about the risk posed by more than 100 petroleum tanks scattered across South Portland beside homes, schools, businesses, community centers, parks and playing fields.

The conflict also exposes longstanding problems in regulating emissions from petroleum refineries and storage terminals across the United States and raises questions about what cities and towns can do to protect themselves from pollution that threatens public health and the environment.

At issue in this case are the tons of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, emitted annually from multimillion-gallon tanks that are heated to keep asphalt and No. 6 heavy oil in liquid form. Both are produced near the end of the refining process. Asphalt is used on roads and roofs. No. 6 oil is burned in shipping and industrial boilers.

VOCs such as benzenes and toluenes contribute to ground-level ozone, which poses a risk to people who have lung disease and is a significant concern in Maine, where 11.2 percent of residents have asthma, the sixth-highest rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The behind-the-scenes battle came to light in March, when the EPA’s New England office filed a lawsuit and proposed consent decree charging Global Partners LP with violating the Clean Air Act at its terminal and tank farm on the Fore River in South Portland. The federal agency claims the Massachusetts-based company exceeded the facility’s VOC emissions limit, which is set in a license from the Maine DEP.

South Portland officials and residents were angry about the late notice from the EPA and worried that foul-smelling tank emissions had jeopardized community health for decades. Global and DEP officials disputed the violation, which only multiplied neighborhood concerns.

South Portland officials are communicating directly with both Global Partners LP and Sprague Operating Resources LLC to address pollution and odor problems arising from their storage tanks in the city. “The city is serious about air quality,” says Mayor Claude Morgan. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

More recently, the city learned the EPA also has been targeting Sprague Operating Resources LLC for alleged VOC violations at its waterfront tank farms in South Portland and Searsport. Records show Sprague facilities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts also came under review. The status of the EPA’s actions against Sprague are unclear.

Now, DEP officials say the state agency should have backed federal efforts to better regulate harmful VOC emissions and it should have alerted citizens who live near the tanks long before the EPA filed a lawsuit.

They admit the state agency erred when it staunchly defended air quality licenses based on air pollution estimates that are self-reported by oil companies and calculated using formulas that even the EPA has called “fundamentally flawed.”

And they say the state agency was wrong to dismiss a new method of testing tank emissions – one that’s also widely disputed – without knowing why EPA officials were requiring the new method or understanding their broader goals and public health concerns.

“Hindsight’s 20-20, but we should have been more proactive toward making sure that there was not a health risk to people and informing people,” said Jeff Crawford, the newly appointed head of the DEP’s Air Quality Bureau.

DEP STAFF CHANGES

Crawford, a former DEP policy specialist who has been with the air bureau for 30 years, replaced former bureau director Marc Cone. He held the position for six years.

Cone wrote a seven-page letter to the EPA in 2016 challenging its crackdown on heated petroleum tank emissions. In April, Cone told South Portland officials that the DEP disagreed that Global’s heated tanks violated its licensed VOC limits. Cone accepted an acting senior environmental engineer position in the bureau in May.

In a recent interview at DEP headquarters in Augusta, Crawford said his approach to the EPA’s focus on Global and Sprague would have been different.

“I would want to be more proactively involved in EPA’s efforts and move forward with whatever permit modifications were deemed necessary,” Crawford said.

Crawford questioned whether the EPA’s lawsuit against Global could have been avoided if the DEP had been on board from the start. He said the state agency is now committed to working with the EPA to implement any necessary changes to resolve emissions concerns at Global and Sprague facilities.

Cone didn’t respond to requests for comment.

How the EPA will respond to the state agency’s new willingness to cooperate remains to be seen. The federal agency declined to answer a slate of written questions for this story, saying that the U.S. Department of Justice advised against commenting because of the pending lawsuit against Global.

In the lawsuit, the EPA challenged the air quality license issued by the DEP that allows the 12-tank terminal in South Portland to emit 21.9 tons of VOCs into the air each year. The federal agency required unprecedented testing in 2012 and 2013 that showed the facility had the potential to emit more than 50 tons of VOCs annually.

VOCs are chemicals in liquids 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.

Despite the threat posed by VOC emissions and Crawford’s pledge to work with the EPA to control them, he stopped short of endorsing the new testing method that the federal agency ordered Global and Sprague to use on their heated tanks.

“I would really like to see their approach be thoroughly peer-reviewed,” Crawford said. “Is this the best approach? If it is, then this is the approach that should be used. … We want to use the most accurate testing methodology.”

Aerial view of the Sprague Energy tank farm in South Portland in a file photo from August 17, 2013.

FAULTY ESTIMATES, DISPUTED TESTS

That’s asking for a lot because there is no accurate, agreed-upon method of gauging emissions from petroleum storage tanks.

The method that the EPA uses to estimate air pollution from petroleum facilities has been disputed for decades. Using mathematical equations developed and owned by the American Petroleum Institute, tank operators enter data reflecting the contents of a tank, temperature and other operating conditions and end up with estimates of what will be released into the air.

Studies have shown that actual emissions from heated storage tanks can be more than 100 times higher than those estimates. And the EPA admits the equations don’t work if companies plug in faulty data, if tanks are poorly maintained, or if operating conditions differ significantly from the norm.

An EPA report in 2012 quoted a petroleum industry document that said using the equations alone to gauge emissions “can lull you into a false sense of security. … (If) you are not measuring, you are guessing.”

However, attempts to measure actual emissions coming out of tanks have drawn their own criticism.

In 2014, the EPA looked at several studies that used laser or infrared camera technology to measure actual petroleum tank emissions. After finding flaws with multiple studies that tried to measure actual VOC emissions from tanks, the EPA concluded in April 2015 that the standard equations “provide reasonably accurate estimates” of emissions when used properly.

NEW TESTING METHOD

As part of the continuing effort to improve testing, EPA’s New England office ordered Global and Sprague to use a new method involving a temporary enclosure installed over tank vents and a fan to draw emissions through a gauge.

The tests found far more actual emissions than allowed under the permits. For example, at Global in South Portland, testing on two heated tanks holding liquid asphalt and heavy oil showed they would emit 12.73 tons of VOCs per year, combined, more than half of the facility’s overall licensed limit for 12 tanks. Global disputes the test results but has pledged to work with the community to address concerns.

Results were similar for the tanks at Sprague’s facility in Searsport, although records don’t indicate that the new testing method was used at Sprague’s tank farm in South Portland. The company did not respond to calls or email requests for comment.

While the public didn’t know it at the time, notices of violations were issued to Global and Sprague facilities in Maine in 2014 and 2015.

The state DEP’s initial reaction was to question why an experimental method was employed before it was peer-reviewed and publicly accepted by the EPA as a standard protocol. In his February 2016 letter to the EPA’s New England office, DEP’s Marc Cone said the method’s use of a fan created “an artificially induced flow” that resulted in higher emission rates “not indicative of normal operation.” He said the standard equations were “the most accurate and appropriate” way to calculate emissions for licensing purposes.

Meanwhile, the EPA’s New England office produced a PowerPoint report in December 2015 that seemed to make the case for expanding the effort nationwide. The report again dismissed the standard equations used to estimate tank emissions as “wrong (and) fundamentally flawed” and said tank emissions “are significantly higher than previously thought.” The report also said the EPA “has expanded the scope nationally” of its crackdown on VOC emissions from heated petroleum tanks.

The EPA declined to answer questions about the current focus and scope of its efforts to reduce VOC tank emissions.

SEEKING CLARITY AHEAD

Meanwhile, more than three years later, the disputed equations for estimating tank emissions still appear to be in effect across the nation. And the Maine DEP still uses the estimates for emissions licenses and isn’t pushing the new testing method onto other companies.

South Portland Mayor Claude Morgan said he remains angry that neither agency notified the city about the tank pollution years ago and disappointed by the lack of clarity or agreement on pollution standards.

He said he is glad that the DEP has a new attitude and this summer installed several air monitoring stations across the city and instructed residents who are participating in a volunteer air monitoring program. The DEP is charging the city $15,000 for the whole effort, saving taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars.

But, Morgan said, South Portland is no longer waiting for either agency to address residents’ air quality concerns. City officials are talking directly with both Global and Sprague representatives to address pollution and odor problems, and Morgan said he hopes other companies that operate petroleum terminals in the city will join the effort.

Morgan sees the fight over tank emissions as an extension of the city’s ongoing, multimillion-dollar defense of its Clear Skies ordinance. Passed in 2014, it imposed air pollution limits that effectively blocked the Portland Pipe Line Corp. from reversing its now largely defunct crude oil pipeline to make it flow from Montreal to South Portland.

“This city is serious about air quality,” Morgan said. “We’re not going to get blindsided again. We’re determined to take control of our air quality, however they measure it.”


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