South Portland residents worried about toxic emissions from nearly 200 fuel storage tanks heard early results from an ongoing air monitoring survey during a City Council meeting Tuesday night.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is conducting the testing, which was prompted by the revelation last spring that one fuel tank company had violated the Clean Air Act for several years.
Initial state testing does not reveal anything out of the ordinary, but many residents are alarmed about potential health impacts.
In June, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection began installing five air quality monitoring stations in South Portland. All were up and running by early November, and Andy Johnson of the DEP told residents that when the year-long air quality monitoring is completed, it should provide the answer to an overarching question: “Is the air safe to breathe? That's the question we're trying to get at."
The DEP is working in conjunction with the Maine Center for Disease Control, and state toxicologist Dr. Andy Smith said, so far, the agency is focusing on three chemicals associated with fuel: benzene, a known carcinogen; naphthalene, a possible carcinogen; and acrolein, a respiratory irritant.
"These are the three that either exceed or come closest to exceeding any of the health-based guidelines," he said.
Smith cautioned that the sample size is low, and more solid conclusions will be drawn after a full year of testing. But currently, levels of benzene and naphthalene are at or below health guideline thresholds. Acrolein levels are above guidelines, but Smith said that's true across the state, so the results in South Portland are not unique.
Though the data do not appear to show anything alarming, that did little to allay the concerns of residents like Catherine Chapman. She was one of several who wondered whether the five monitoring sites were properly placed.
“It seems to be the elephant in the room here," she said. "We've got people living in the area right next to the tank farms that are suffering, that have health problems, and we're not testing the air right there.”
Others, like Scott Pierce, questioned the CDC's next steps, which will include looking at rates of emergency department visits in the area for asthma.
"I'd just be curious why only asthma is the only health effect that's being looked at?" Pierce said. "I know there are a lot of other health effects associated with a lot of these compounds."
Much of the frustration expressed by both councilors and residents is that there is so much unknown. And as they wait for answers, they wonder about their own next steps. Julie Falatko said she loves South Portland, but she doesn't know if she and her family should stay.
"And with one of our kids having asthma, we have three other kids, I don't know what we're exposing them to," she said. "I want to stay where we are, but I feel like a negligent parent doing that the way it is."
The CDC and DEP say they will return to South Portland to provide updates on their findings over the course of the year.
In the meantime, some city councilors are proposing that South Portland enact a local ordinance with stricter air emission standards than the state. And Rebecca Millett, a Democratic senator who represents South Portland, told residents she plans to submit a bill in the next legislative session that would require the DEP to study how best to monitor air quality around petroleum tanks and control their emissions.