Ask just about anyone living in the neighborhoods surrounding oil storage tanks in South Portland, and they’ll tell you about the noxious smell and fumes the tanks produce. Many of them will tell you about their sore throats, headaches and nausea. In March of last year, we learned that Global Partners had been violating the Clean Air Act for over a decade. The Environmental Protection Agency found these tanks were emitting twice the volatile organic compounds – or VOCs – than what the company was licensed for.

Not long after, South Portland was notified that Sprague Energy had also been issued a notice of violation.

I was shocked to learn last year that when a company breaks the law and violates the Clean Air Act, the way Global Partners did, neither the EPA nor Maine Department of Environmental Protection were required to inform the town or city where the violation took place. That means they weren’t required to tell South Portland officials about what was going on. I want to be clear: The EPA and Maine DEP did exactly what they were supposed to do. The fault lies solely with Global Partners, whose tanks were emitting dangerous fumes.

Still, this event revealed a hole in our laws that needed to be fixed. That’s why last year, I sponsored a bill to make sure communities are informed of Clean Air violations that would hurt their residents. With support from Portland and South Portland officials, as well as the DEP, the bill was passed into law.

But our work is far from done. We’ve seen the immediate effects on people’s health, but we’ve yet to confirm what the long-term effects will be. The symptoms neighbors have described – sore throats, nausea and headaches – are the same symptoms the EPA says exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause. The EPA warns of other health problems caused by prolonged exposure to certain volatile organic compounds: damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system; fatigue and loss of coordination; shortness of breath, and even cancer.

Housing, especially affordable housing, is tight in the Portland area. Many families struggle to find a safe place to call home that they can afford. What do you do when you learn the air you and your children are breathing in your own home isn’t safe?

For so many families, packing up and finding somewhere else simply isn’t an option. The cost of moving – renting a truck; saving up for first and last month’s rent and a security deposit – is out of reach for many people living paycheck to paycheck. And it’s not just about young families, either. There are a number of housing units for elderly residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the tanks in South Portland, including one complex that’s right next to a tank site. There are businesses. There are schools and day care centers. Every Mainer deserves to know their home, their place of work and their neighborhood is safe. No one should have to worry whether the air they’re breathing every day is making them sick.

The question that’s still facing South Portland residents, as well as neighbors in nearby Portland, is what exactly they are and have been breathing in this whole time, and what really is a safe level of exposure, if any. While the EPA knows the tanks owned by Global Partners were putting out high amounts of fumes, they don’t know specifically what those fumes were. That makes it difficult to know how to proceed.

This year, I’ve sponsored a new bill, L.D. 1915, Resolve, Directing the Department of Environmental Protection To Evaluate Emissions from Heated Aboveground Petroleum Storage Tanks, which will help address this lingering problem. Under this bill, the DEP would study how to measure and control fumes emitted by aboveground storage tanks, including those in South Portland, and make recommendations to the Legislature. Once we have this critical information, we’ll be in a better position to make sure this problem never happens again.

All Maine families deserve to breathe clean, healthy air. Where you live, or how much money you make shouldn’t determine how safe your home is.

 


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