SOUTH PORTLAND — State environmental officials on Tuesday night restated their commitment to address residents’ concerns about air pollution created by petroleum tank farms and other sources in the city.

But urging patience and quoting the Carpenters’ song, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” representatives of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection also warned that definitive results of an air quality monitoring program started in June won’t be available for months and might not prove conclusive.

“This is more of a marathon than a sprint,” DEP chief Jerry Reid told city councilors. “There is no instant gratification in an undertaking like this.”

The City Council held the workshop at the request of Councilor April Caricchio, who wants to establish an advisory committee to address residents’ air pollution concerns in a more comprehensive way.

“We have air quality issues throughout the city,” said Caricchio, who noted her three children have various health issues. “It has to be a multifaceted approach.”

The DEP agreed to mount the air quality monitoring program for the city after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit and consent decree in March charging Global Partners LP with violating the Clean Air Act at its petroleum terminal on the Fore River.

City officials and residents were shocked to learn DEP staff members knew since 2011 that the EPA was targeting hazardous emissions from heated tanks of asphalt and No. 6 heavy residual fuel oil at Global and Sprague facilities but never notified city officials. The DEP has cited Global for more recent violations.

Andy Johnson, the DEP’s head of ambient air monitoring, said the agency will administer the program for the city for one year, starting in September when the final two of five permanent monitoring stations are expected to be installed in selected spots across the city.

The program is focusing on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are known to cause various health and environmental problems. The state has covered the $64,400 cost of equipment and testing so far, but additional funding could expand the scope of the program to other pollutants in the future, Johnson said.

Danni Twomey, senior environmental chemist with the DEP, repeated the warning that a foul odor doesn’t guarantee the presence of hazardous emissions and a lack of odor doesn’t mean air is clean.

Of 13 successful “grab samples” taken by volunteers across the city, Twomey said significant odor and benzene spikes on Chapel Street and Skillins Street were associated with shipping activity and vehicle traffic on the city’s waterfront and trains moving through Rigby Rail Yard, respectively. A 24-hour sample taken at the permanent monitoring station near City Hall showed a similar spike on July 26.

“Boats, planes and trains – you’ve got it all,” Twomey said. “This is a complex little city and it changes day to day, depending on where the wind blows.”

South Portland residents pressed councilors to take action to prevent Global, Sprague and other petroleum companies operating in the city from emitting foul odors and hazardous compounds into the air. Many raised concerns about the impact poor air quality has on the elderly and children.

“They’re so young and so vulnerable,” said Margaret Brownlee, who lives near Rigby Rail Yard and has a 3-year-old daughter.

Residents from neighboring Portland, across the Fore River, also attended the meeting to express similar concerns.

“People might start to vote with their feet” and leave the area, said Will Prestemon, who lives in Portland’s West End.

VOCs include a variety of chemicals that 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. Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, the elderly and anyone with lung diseases such as asthma. Ground-level ozone also can harm sensitive vegetation and ecosystems.

Among the other speakers was Tom Mikulka, a retired environmental lab director and certified industrial hygienist with a specialty in indoor air quality.

Mikulka said he doesn’t smell petroleum odors at his home in neighboring Cape Elizabeth, and South Portland residents should enjoy the same right. Mikulka said oil companies should be required to install vapor-capturing equipment on storage tanks that would prevent harmful compounds from escaping into the air.

“Eliminate the vapors,” Mikulka said. “The technology is out there.”

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