This map shows where air quality monitoring stations were installed across South Portland in recent months. Courtesy / Maine DEP

SOUTH PORTLAND — Air quality monitors in South Portland show that, while there were spikes in the amount of pollutants, pollutants were still below the acute health guidelines designed to protect even the most sensitive person.

This past summer South Portland residents were trained to take a “grab sample” to help the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in its citywide air quality monitoring project. Courtesy / Maine DEP

That’s according to a joint report shared by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention unveiled Tuesday.

City leaders and residents first became alarmed about chemicals in the air this past spring after learning that the federal Environmental Protection Agency had filed a lawsuit accusing Global Partners LP with violating the Clean Air Act at its petroleum terminal on the Fore River.

Then, in late July, the city learned about similar unresolved problems at Sprague Energy, which has a terminal along the river on the Portland side, as well as several large oil tanks and an asphalt storage facility in South Portland.

According to the EPA, Global Partners, a Massachusetts-based company with a 10-tank petroleum storage facility in South Portland, has exceeded its volatile organic compounds, or VOC, emission cap for several years.

The EPA has not filed a complaint against Sprague and in July company Vice President Burton Russell said in a letter to the city that Sprague was engaged in “dialogue” with the EPA and was hopeful a resolution could be reached.

Andrew Smith, a state toxicologist, told the City Council Tuesday that the initial focus was on three chemicals, naphthalene, acrolein and benzene, which is a known human carcinogen.

Even with a few “hot spots,” Smith said all levels of the three chemicals analyzed so far show they’re “well below” the federal health guidelines set up to protect human health.

“We remain committed to the monitoring process and are trying to get you answers to the air quality concerns,” Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Gerald Reid.

The DEP has set up five permanent air quality monitoring stations across the city, which will remain in place until at least fall 2020 at Bug Light Park, the city assessor’s office in downtown, the concession stand at the high school, the superintendent’s office and Red Bank Community Center.

“There’s more than one source of VOCs in the city and VOCs are one small slice of the air pollutant pie,” Andy Johnson, director of the air quality division at DEP, said.

DEP’s goal, he said, is to identify all potential sources and then look into any measures that can be taken to modify the pollutants.

Air quality data is being collected every six days from the sites in South Portland as well as two new sites in Portland at Ocean Gateway and West Commercial Street. The information is being shared monthly with the Maine Center for Disease Control.

“We have a wealth of information that we’re still accessing, but what we have so far has told us a lot,” Danielle Twomey, who manages the state’s air lab, said. “We are starting to get some sense of the pollutant loads. But we need to know more.”

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said teams from his office will be engaged in monitoring the number of emergency room visits made by South Portland residents who are suffering from acute asthma attacks or other breathing difficulties.

Tobacco buffers

Also Tuesday, the council voted unanimously to impose buffer zones between tobacco retailers and certain sensitive uses, including schools, churches, daycare centers and large public parks.

The council approved the measure despite a recommendation against the new rules from the Planning Board.

Councilors said Tuesday that while they respect the Planning Board’s position, it was good policy to impose the buffers, with incoming Mayor Kate Lewis saying, “I’m thoroughly convinced this is the right tool to use.”

Councilors also noted that while the buffers don’t solve all the problems, “we’re at least standing up and doing something,” according to outgoing Councilor Maxine Beecher.

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