The Ecomaine incinerator emits purple-pink smoke Friday morning. Photo courtesy of Alexander Hitchen

Alexander Hitchen had just dropped his daughter off at school Friday morning and was headed to South Portland when he saw an unusual sight: a large plume of purple vapor rising in the air over the Maine Turnpike.

His first thought was that it was some kind of alert from the Portland International Jetport. Then he realized that it was coming from a smokestack at Ecomaine’s waste-to-energy plant in Portland.

“I was thinking this really is how Stephen King novels start, where some guy sees it and thinks, ‘Let’s check it out,’ ” he said.

Lizzy Snyder, a radio deejay from Lewiston, said she thought the smoke might be a “very big gender reveal” when she saw it Friday morning from the Maine Turnpike. She said in a Facebook message that she was driving through Westbrook on her way to Pennsylvania to visit family with her wife and son when the pink smoke suddenly appeared.

“Our jaws dropped when we saw a massive cloud of hot pink smoke being pumped into the skies. At first we didn’t notice the chimney it was coming out of, so we were confused and thought it was a very big gender reveal,” said Snyder, 37, co-host of the Matt & Lizzy morning show on Augusta-based 92 Moose.


The purple-pink plume was first spotted rising from the Ecomaine stack at the Blueberry Road facility on Thursday morning. Ecomaine officials said the issue was fixed within a couple of hours and was believed to be caused by a larger-than-normal amount of iodine in the waste stream.

Purple-pink smoke is seen coming from the Ecomaine facility on Blueberry Road in Portland Friday morning Photo courtesy of Sara Nemitz

But the purple vapor returned Friday morning and this time appeared more vibrant against cloudy skies. It could be seen as far south as Scarborough.

Nate Cronauer, a company spokesperson, said workers noticed the purple vapor around 8:30 a.m. Friday and immediately stopped feeding trash into the boiler.

“We’re confident it is purple vapor coming from a source of iodine that came in through the waste stream,” he said.

In a statement Friday, Ecomaine CEO Kevin Roche said, “While we’ve been able to identify what we believe is causing the problem, we have not yet been able to identify the source of where this waste is coming from.”

The company, which generates electricity by processing waste, said in the statement that the incident “serves as a clear reminder of the importance of making sure municipal solid waste is disposed of correctly.”


After seeing the plume, Hitchen looked up articles about what was happening and saw that Ecomaine officials were reassuring people that it was a brief incident and there were no concerns about public safety.

“For it to happen again obviously is of concern,” he said. “Hopefully, they will address the issue and put in steps from ever happening again.”

Ecomaine said in both incidents this week the vapor was stopped within 2 ½ hours.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection was notified of the second incident by Ecomaine, and DEP staff were at the facility Friday to assess the situation, said David Madore, an agency spokesperson.

Madore said he was not aware of any similar incidents involving iodine in Maine in the past.

In a statement Friday evening, the DEP said it was investigating the “root cause of the problem, potential health, and environmental impacts, and how to avoid similar events in the future.”


Ecomaine said Thursday that it had never experienced a similar problem before, but other waste-to-energy facilities around the nation have. The colored vapor in those instances was linked to iodine entering their combustion chambers.


Ecomaine and DEP officials did not respond to questions about what was being done to confirm if the purple vapor was caused by iodine and how much was emitted.

Iodine is commonly used in pharmaceuticals, disinfectants, inks, animal feed supplements and photographic chemicals. Vaporized iodine can pose health risks if inhaled directly. But Ecomaine said it is unlikely that anyone had direct exposure “due to the relatively short time the incident occurred and its location.”

Cronauer said Ecomaine officials don’t believe anyone has been directly exposed to the vapor.

In response to a question about the risks of being exposed to vaporized iodine, a spokesperson for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said that it is difficult to comment on potential health impacts because Ecomaine has not yet measured the emissions or confirmed that it is vaporized iodine.


The DEP said Friday that it is working with the state CDC to investigate the potential public health impact.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, short-term exposure to iodine can irritate the eyes, respiratory tract and skin.

In 2019, purple plumes from an incinerator in Newark, New Jersey, owned by Covanta concerned nearby residents and environmental activists, who pushed the state to investigate. A team of investigators from Covanta determined that the source of the iodine was a nearby chemical company.

Covanta entered a consent order with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection over the purple plume, reported. A third-party firm determined there had been no public health threat.

Hitchen, who is co-founder of the Press for Success public relations firm and splits his time between Maine and New York, said “normally you can pride yourself on thinking Maine has the fresher air.”

“My New York colleagues were having a lot of fun about this today,” he said. “They were saying, ‘Come down to Manhattan where the air is cleaner.’ ”

Staff Writer Ray Routhier contributed to this report. 

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