The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is poised to challenge widely disputed federal methods of monitoring and controlling petroleum tank emissions under a bill that got its first airing before a legislative committee Friday.

Those questionable methods came to light last year when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a federal lawsuit and consent decree against Global Partners LP for Clean Air Act violations at its tank farm in South Portland.

South Portland officials and residents were in Augusta on Friday to deliver moving testimony in support of L.D. 1915, which would direct the Maine DEP to study and recommend the best ways to measure, estimate and control odors and other air emissions from oil storage tanks, loading racks and vessel off-loading facilities.

Homes along Ballard Street in South Portland are just across Barberry Creek from a Global Partners petroleum storage tank. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The only testimony in opposition came from a representative of Shaw Bros. Construction in Gorham, who warned that the legislation might lead to “unnecessary regulations” and increase the cost of liquid asphalt used on Maine roads.

The resolve before the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee also would require the state department to review best available odor and emission control technologies being used in other states and jurisdictions, and submit a report to the committee by Jan. 1, 2021.

“If it’s the EPA (methods), we’ll go with that. If it’s something else, we’ll go with that,” DEP chief Gerald Reid said outside the hearing room Friday. “This is the sort of thing DEP does and should be doing routinely.”

Supporters of the study described fearful residents who tape their windows to keep out offensive odors and invisible vapors; parents who worry about their children’s health but can’t sell their homes because they live near tanks; and seniors and others with asthma and other illnesses who struggle to breathe.

“These vapors also reach the nearby daycares and schools,” said Judith Kline, a member of the citizens’ group Protect South Portland and one of 17 people who spoke in favor of the bill.

“Everyone deserves to breathe clean air, including Mainers who live next to or work at or near oil tank farms,” Kline said. “I’m hopeful that relief can be found for the many South Portland families who are counting on us to solve this serious problem.”

Speaking in opposition, Parker Brown, assistant controller at Shaw Bros. Construction, told the committee that L.D. 1915 “may increase unnecessary regulations and negatively affect our state’s already dilapidated infrastructure. Any additional regulations will result in increasing prices of liquid asphalt, the main component driving the cost to build our roadways.”

Several committee members challenged Brown’s assertion and indicated early support for the bill.

State Rep. Daniel Hobbs Jr., D-Wells, said he lived in South Portland for a few years in the early 2000s. “I was aware of the odors even back then,” he said.

Ben Gilman, a lawyer with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said his organization is neither for nor against the bill, but he acknowledged Brown’s concerns about potential impact on asphalt prices. When pressed by the committee, Gilman said the chamber supported testing that ensured healthy air for Maine citizens.

The committee is expected to schedule a workshop for the bill, vote and issue a recommendation on the proposed study in the coming weeks.

Among the issues to be clarified by the study is the EPA’s standard method of estimating oil tank emissions of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, such as benzene, a known carcinogen. The standard method is based on a long-contested formula that was developed by the petroleum industry and uses product volumes and other data provided by petroleum tank farm operators.

Critics of the formula, including some EPA officials, say the standard method doesn’t accurately measure pollution levels because it fails to account for emission spikes. However, environmental officials and others are also critical of a newer method that was used on Global’s tanks and resulted in the lawsuit.

“It is not right to have to live in doubt like this,” said state Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, the bill’s sponsor. “This is a matter of public health and we must not delay this important work.”

South Portland DEP petroleum tank bill testimony

South Portland Sustainability Director Julie Rosenbach takes a photo of state Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, South Portland Mayor Kate Lewis, South Portland City Councilor April Caricchio and state Rep. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, before they testified Friday in Augusta in support of a bill to study and improve methods of measuring, estimating and controlling emissions from petroleum storage tanks. Kelley Bouchard/Staff Writer

South Portland officials and residents were surprised in March when the EPA filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Massachusetts-based Global Partners has for several years emitted higher levels of VOCs than allowed under its emissions license from the Maine DEP.

VOCs are chemicals that become gases at ambient pressure and temperatures. Major sources are industrial processes that use solvents, vehicle emissions, evaporation from petroleum storage facilities and forest fires. Many are hazardous to the environment and human health, contributing to smog and ground-level ozone and causing throat and lung irritation, headaches, nausea, organ damage and worse.

Global’s 12-tank facility is licensed by Maine DEP to emit 21.9 tons of VOCs into the air each year. However, new testing showed that storage and transfer of liquid asphalt and No. 6 heavy residual fuel oil contained in four heated tanks emitted more than 40 tons per year, and the entire facility had the potential to emit more than 50 tons per year.

Global disputes the findings, and Maine DEP officials initially backed the company, though the state agency has since expressed regret that it didn’t make a greater effort to collaborate with the EPA and is now administering a community-wide air quality monitoring program at no cost to the city.

In September, Global announced it would install a total of $400,000 in odor-control equipment on its petroleum storage tanks, contribute $15,000 toward an air quality monitoring program and provide a website, globalsouthportland.com, where residents can report odor complaints directly to Global and read annual emissions data filed with the Maine DEP.

A federal judge in December approved a consent decree outlining measures Global must take to reduce emissions, though many people in South Portland said the settlement was inadequate.

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