Petroleum Fumes: What are the kids breathing in South Portland, ME?

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By Sabrina Shankman

“SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Oscar’s small feet thunder through the house, followed by the sound of our back door sliding open as he runs outside. He’s almost four—big enough to play alone in the fenced-in backyard, not big enough to remember to wear a coat on a chilly Maine morning.

“I run after him, holding his infant sister as I shout for him to put on his fleece. And then I smell the fumes. They fill my lungs and sting my eyes. Oscar smiles up at me from the sandbox and I’m stuck. Do I let him stay out and play? Hurry him inside? Parenting, I have learned, is making a thousand decisions each day, and on this one, I have no idea.

“In late March, the city of South Portland was blindsided when the EPA filed a consent decree with a company that operates industrial storage tanks here. Global Partners, a Massachusetts-based energy supply company that owns four of them, had been violating its emissions permit since at least 2013. The amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) being emitted was reportedly more than double what was permitted, and the problem had gone unabated for years.

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“VOCs are a range of chemicals that can cause a range of problems, including a one-two punch of health and climate impacts. They can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, damage the nervous system and cause cancer. VOCs can also lead to the formation of ground-level ozone, a short-lived climate pollutant that exacerbates climate change and can trigger asthma and breathing problems—especially in the elderly and the young. A 2016 study found that ozone pollution from oil and gas production causes more than 750,000 summertime asthma attacks in children across the U.S. each year.

“When I found out about the consent decree, I hopped on Google Maps to see where the tanks were, and I felt the sudden urge to throw up. The tanks, which contain bunker fuel and asphalt, are less than a quarter mile from where my kids go to daycare. Just under a mile and a half from my home…”


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