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These are the toxic chemicals in our neighborhood

By Stephen Betts | Jan 04, 2020
An aerial view of the Dragon Products cement plant in Thomaston.

Four manufacturing plants account for nearly all the toxic chemicals that are released into the atmosphere in Knox County.

These chemicals include styrene, ammonia, lead, and mercury. And the amount released into the atmosphere in 2018 was the most of any year since 2007.

Nick Bennett, staff scientist and healthy waters director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said release of toxic chemicals into the environment is not healthy.

"How much harm it causes is impossible to say with the information we have," Bennett said.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency compiles reports submitted by companies across the country on what toxic chemicals are released into the atmosphere.

The Toxic Release Inventory Program was created as part of a response to several events that raised public concern about local preparedness for chemical emergencies and the availability of information on hazardous substances, according to the EPA. Those included a deadly release of extremely toxic methyl isocyanate gas in 1984 from a Union Carbide Chemical plant in Bhopal, India that killed thousands of people and a serious chemical release in 1985 at a similar plant in West Virginia.

In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act to promote emergency planning and to provide the public with information about releases of toxic chemicals in their community. That law included the toxic release inventory program.

TRI tracks the management of certain toxic chemicals that may pose a threat to human health and the environment. U.S. facilities in different industry sectors must report annually how much of each chemical is released to the environment and/or managed through recycling, energy recovery and treatment.

Facilities that report to TRI are typically larger facilities involved in manufacturing, metal mining, electric power generation, chemical manufacturing and hazardous waste treatment.

There are 595 individually listed chemicals and 33 chemical categories covered by the TRI Program.

According to the TRI report, 44,530 pounds of toxic chemicals were emitted into the air during 2018 in Knox County. That is the most since 2007 when 50,673 pounds were released.

The amount released in Knox County reached a low of 13,166 pounds in 2010. They peaked in the late 1980s when the amount exceeded 100,000 pounds.

Of that 44,530 pounds released throughout Knox County in 2018, 36,130 pounds were styrenes used by boatbuilder North End Composites on Merrill Drive in the Rockland Industrial Park.

Styrene is part of the gel coating and resin used in the boat production process. The chemical can evaporate into the air during manufacturing.

Dragon Products in Thomaston reported 3,835 pounds of ammonia, 255 pounds of manganese compounds, 250 pounds of chromium, seven pounds of lead compounds, 12 pounds of mercury, six pounds of polycyclic aromatic compounds, five pounds of Trimethylbenzene, and five pounds of n-hexane were disposed of on-site or released into the air.

Michael Martunas of Dragon Products said the majority of the company's report involves permitted releases from the production of cement. The combustion of fuel during the cement-making process is the source of the majority of compounds released. Martunuas said sources of some compounds released -- such as mercury and lead -- can be found naturally in the local limestone.

The Dragon official said Dragon is subject to the most stringent Portland cement maximum achievable control technology standards established by the EPA and Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

"Dragon is currently in compliance with all the control technology requirements. In order to meet those requirements, Dragon has installed the latest technology to control its permitted emissions," he said.

The company said it is not aware of any health studies conducted in the area about the health impact of such releases.

Snow plow manufacturer Fisher Engineering in Rockland reported 2,828 pounds of manganese compounds, 71 pounds of chromium compounds, and 32 pounds of nickel compounds.

DuPont Nutrition U.S.A, with its carrageenan manufacturing plant on Rockland's waterfront, reported 1,009 pounds of n-hexane, and 63 pounds of nitric acid.

The World Health Organization lists 10 chemicals or groups of chemicals of the most concern for public health. Those include lead, mercury and benzene.

"Chemicals are part of our daily life. All living and inanimate matter is made up of chemicals and virtually every manufactured product involves the use of chemicals. Many chemicals can, when properly used, significantly contribute to the improvement of our quality of life, health and well-being. But other chemicals are highly hazardous and can negatively affect our health and environment when improperly managed," according to the WHO website.

WHO lists lead as a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems, including the neurologic, hematologic, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and renal systems. Children are particularly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of lead, and even relatively low levels of exposure can cause serious and in some cases irreversible neurological damage.

Mercury releases in the environment result mainly from human activity, particularly from coal-fired power stations, residential heating systems, waste incinerators and as a result of mining for mercury, gold and other metals. Once in the environment, elemental mercury is naturally transformed into methylmercury that bioaccumulates in fish and shellfish.

Human exposure occurs mainly through inhalation of elemental mercury vapors during industrial processes and through consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish.

Human exposure to benzene has been associated with a range of acute and long-term adverse health effects and diseases, including cancer and haematological effects. Exposure can occur occupationally, in the general environment and in the home as a result of the ubiquitous use of benzene-containing petroleum products, including motor fuels and solvents. Active and passive exposure to tobacco smoke is also a significant source of exposure.

Statewide, 9.3 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released during 2018, according to the TRI reports. The two biggest companies, in terms of toxic chemical releases, in Maine were McCain Foods of Easton and Verso Corp. paper mill in Jay. Each released more than 2.2 million pounds.

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Comments (10)
Posted by: Amy Files | Jan 06, 2020 10:12

Just to add to George's comment -- people lived next door to pollution 100's of years ago, building train tracks and factories in close proximity to homes because -- very similar to when cigarettes first came into fashion -- they were simply unaware of the serious, and dangerous, impact this pollution has on our health and bodies. I would urge anyone concerned about this type of pollution to also take a closer look at the Amtrak train service that has been discussed coming to Rockland. Trains are only sustainable when the amount of pollution that they output is less than the amount of cars that they displace. But the trains that Amtrak is currently running into Maine are some of the oldest in their fleet, emitting sooty particulate pollution—the most deadly kind of air pollution that we can be exposed to. The trains that Amtrak would operate here in the midcoast are some of the dirtiest allowed by the EPA. Meanwhile, the trains operating in California are around 90% cleaner and the technology for zero emission trains has been recently implemented in Germany. Before any new business come to our City, city leadership should serve residents by protecting our health, requiring that business's operate to best practices and current standards -- so as not to needlessly poison our air, water or environment. In today's day and age -- and in a state that has one of the highest rates of lung cancer in the country --  there is no excuse for needlessly exposing residents to otherwise avoidable pollution. Regarding what we can do about the companies that are already part of our community, there is such a large amount of chemicals listed above, and a variety of businesses and industries -- it would be helpful to enlist an expert who can weigh-in and let us know if there may be any low hanging fruit on which we can work with our local businesses to mitigate and limit pollution.

Posted by: Stephen Betts | Jan 05, 2020 18:27

I saw Dark Waters last evening. Great movie but sad on what was done by the company and how long it took to get justice.

Posted by: George Terrien | Jan 05, 2020 17:50

Take in the current movie at the Strand "Dark Waters"!  After seeing that movie, anyone thinking that Parkersburg, West Virginia is still far away may wonder differently, thinking about Rockland's best tax payer.

Posted by: Stephen Betts | Jan 05, 2020 17:00

I was looking back at an article I wrote in 2005 on chemical releases and knew it was well past time to update the environmental issue.

Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Jan 05, 2020 15:45

Steve Betts: Very important article. How did you happen to write this article; what prompted it? Thanks.

Posted by: T A Schwab | Jan 05, 2020 11:05

The city council needs to look in to this. The numbers are on the rise! NOT GOOD. We are being poisoned.

Posted by: Lucinda Lang | Jan 04, 2020 21:22

It is 2020...the professional research and accompanying data is probably at least 40 years old....Allowing these toxins/poisons in our air and our water is outright criminal and at this point in time intentional. WE the people are Knox County. 
"It’s 3.23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my dreams
won’t let me sleep
my great great grand children
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
~ Drew Dellinger"

Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Jan 04, 2020 12:23

Here's something useful and concrete the Rockland city council could work on, in collaboration with neighboring selectmen, as the wind knows no town lines.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jan 04, 2020 12:11

Pollution in the old days was not a worry. Science gave way to education and now we have a wakeup call. Problems versus jobs. Both sides are full of "good" for the community and then bad for some  someone's' health. Scientists will surely find a way to make pollution evaporate and not be a problem. One should hope!

Posted by: George Terrien | Jan 04, 2020 10:34

When I was young, "The Editors of TIME" presented a series of extended newsreels through local theaters.  Westbrook Vanvorhees proclaimed a context for recent news, recast with the kind of authoritative voice I have not heard since Walter Cronkite.  These short films were titled "The March of Time".  Talk about "product placement...!"

I found them compelling, if not--I admit--also thrilling.

I remember particularly a title shot for at least one of these blatantly self-laudatory propagandizers.  A wedge-shot of a line of large smoke stacks, all expelling enormous and violent plumes of billowing, thick, black smoke.  The orchestra carried the stentorian lede that "Smoke means progress" in proud crescendo, incontrovertibly presuming self-congratulatory compliment for industrial vigor, making pollution (still accepted today as a benefit of modern living) the speedometer of better living.

The history of Rockland is no stranger to this lie, as can be seen in that historic photograph of the lime train curving tightly along the still-used railroad tracks in the South End.  A chuffy little steam engine pulled a number of petite rail cars through a fine, happy-feeling neighborhood, with laundry hanging in the sunshine, and lots of smoke and steam rising from the engine.

We can look back on this quaintness with a mixture of pity, and perhaps curiosity, about how people must have reacted to the stench and soot of coal smoke through their open windows, perhaps embracing their burden for the sake of a weekly paycheck.

Perhaps a century from now, future citizens of Rockland will look back on us, wondering how we could have accepted such pollution as described in this article, knowing what we do now about the cost for despoliation of our environment, squandering our health.

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