An air monitoring device is attached to the parking lot attendant’s booth at the South Portland boat launch near Bug Light. Contributed

SOUTH PORTLAND — State environmental officials say preliminary air monitoring data shows combustion engines, not oil tanks, are one of the biggest culprits in the spread of air pollution in the city.

But they also say more time is needed before reaching definitive conclusions.

According to Adrian Kendall, the city’s special counsel for matters related to air quality monitoring, state toxicologist Andrew Smith canceled his presentation at an Aug. 20 workshop to discuss information as it relates to health concerns because he believes the data is too preliminary.

“This is the quandary we have … we want to give you the information as soon as we have it, and as soon as it makes sense, but the health officials won’t touch this,” Mayor Claude Morgan said at the Aug. 20 meeting. “They may touch it in six months … that’s why we don’t have a health professional here.”

Smith’s last-minute cancellation “came as a shock to us,” City Manager Scott Morelli said.

Attempts by The Forecaster to reach Smith on Wednesday, Aug. 21, were unsuccessful. But in an email statement received Thursday, Aug. 22, Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC believed it was “premature” for Smith to participate in Tuesday’s workshop.

“Maine CDC has proposed that Dr. Smith give a separate presentation in South Portland that would focus specifically on how he and the Maine CDC will use the data to form a public health response and to answer questions related to that process,” Long said. “We think devoting a full evening to this topic would be the best way that Maine CDC would ensure that questions related to our approach are answered fully.”

Tuesday’s workshop, held at the request of Councilor April Caricchio, was one of four scheduled this year in response to several U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allegations that Global Partners LLC violated its air emissions license and emitted more volatile organic compounds than allowed from its petroleum tank facility at 1 Clark Road.

Another workshop will be held Tuesday, Sept. 3, when councilors and city officials will discuss establishing an advisory committee to oversee air quality concerns in the future.

Danni Twomey, a senior environmental chemist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said at Tuesday’s meeting that  13 samples taken by volunteers across the city show some of the highest samples are not related to asphalt or No. 6 fuel oil, but rather motor sources such as trains, planes and other vehicles.

“It all overlaps, and exposure can change depending on which way the wind blows,” Twomey said. “And sometimes when you don’t smell odors, it’s still just as bad for you … because they overlap, there is no way to say, with any kind of accuracy, where the problem lies.”

Twomey said without the state toxicologist in attendance, there was no way of knowing what effects short-term exposure may have on an individual based on the data gathered.

What is clear, however, is data results were higher than expected.

Twomey said significant odor and benzene spikes occurred on Chapel Street and Skillins Street, which highlights VOC emissions from motor sources such as traffic and trains. A 24-hour sample from the monitoring station near City Hall showed a similar spike on July 26.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the gravity of poisoning caused by benzene depends on the amount, route and length of time of exposure, as well as the age and any pre-existing conditions of the person exposed.

Andy Johnson, head of ambient air monitoring at the DEP, said the general consensus among environmental officials is that definitive results from air quality monitoring, which began in June, won’t be available for several months and may not prove decisive.

Johnson said so far, the DEP has placed three permanent monitoring stations at Bug Light Park, the City Assessor’s Office and South Portland High School to collect 24-hour sampling data throughout the city.

Two other monitoring systems at the School Administration Building in District 4 and the Redbank Community Center will be installed in September, with an extra “floater” canister sampling system available to be put anywhere in the city. The agency will be responsible for running the program for one year once all stations have been placed next month.

The state has paid more than $64,000 used for equipment and testing so far, but Johnson emphasized that additional funding from the city could help expand the program and make its efforts more viable in the future.

Eight hand-held canisters have been provided to residents since June 10, with 36 grab samples taken and returned to the DEP. Johnson noted that 22 grab samples have been analyzed; eight were voided due to technical errors.

Several residents spoke at the meeting about the EPA allegations against Global and Sprague Energy, saying the city should take into consideration how it wants to tackle and identify climate mitigation in the future.

“If we still have these tanks here in 2050, we’re still in trouble, because it will mean we didn’t make the conversion to heat pumps and electric cars,” city Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said during the public comment period.

Those living near the tanks have complained of nausea, sore throats, fatigue and headaches that are often triggered late at night or early in the morning, when they claim the odor from the tank farm is the most pungent.

According to the EPA website, VOC’s can have short- and long-term negative health effects, including eye irritation, dizziness, kidney damage, and, in some cases, various types of cancer.

Eben Rose, a former city councilor who lives on Buchanan Street, suggested the council make a law that states, “no toxic emissions from industrial properties be allowed in the public noses,” while resident Paul Cunningham echoed sentiments similar to Haeuser’s, saying officials must deeply analyze what role the terminals play in the city’s future.

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

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