Confused Mainers watched as pink vapor billowed out the chimney of the EcoMaine waste management plant in Portland back in mid-August.
As reports of the unusual vapor spread across social media, the company — which dubs itself as “Maine’s leader in sustainable waste management” — and state officials scrambled to identify the cause of the unusual smog, according to emails obtained by the Maine Wire through a Freedom of Access Act request.
More than a month later, experts with the State of Maine and EcoMaine still can’t say how materials that shouldn’t have been incinerated ended up in the wastestream, where they came from, or how they’ll prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future.
Originally founded as a regional landfill management nonprofit in 1976, EcoMaine is now a waste-to-energy plant that is controlled by a consortium of 20 municipal governments.
EcoMaine’s customers include the 20 controlling governments, each of which has a seat on the board of directors, plus 45 more municipalities and a number of commercial customers.
Although the state’s experts have determined that the release was likely caused by iodine in the waste stream and presented no threat to public health, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has yet to receive the final lab analysis of the ash byproduct.
The delay in receiving lab results stems from the lack of any facility in Maine that could perform such tests. The samples had to be shipped out of state. As a result, neither EcoMaine nor the state have been able to confirm — without question — what materials were burned in the incinerator that produced the pink vapor.
More troubling than the delay in identifying what went wrong, EcoMaine has not been able to identify how such a large quantity of iodine, which isn’t supposed to make it into the incinerator, wound up floating in large pink clouds over Maine’s largest city.
EcoMaine’s inability to discern the source of the irregular waste in this case raises questions about their ability to do so in the future should a more hazardous substance be discovered — either before or after potentially harmful waste is burned.
Should something similar happen in the future wherein the substance at fault is less circumstantially obvious or more dangerous to public health, it is not clear that EcoMaine would be able to provide the DEP or the public definitive answers in a timely fashion regarding the presence of a health hazard.
The DEP also did not appear, judging by the emails sent in relation to the incident, to have been particularly prepared to deal with the incident.
After some initial confusion over the colored vapor, Maine DEP staff began scouring the Internet for similar occurrences elsewhere in the country for hints as to what could be happening in Portland.
While it is understandable that even experts cannot be prepared for each and every circumstance they may encounter, it is concerning that the people upon whom Mainers rely for environmental safety found themselves scrambling online for information.
The Maine DEP told the Maine Wire any potential enforcement action will not be explored until EcoMaine has completed their investigation into the incident.
The Pink Cloud
The first reported communications about the incident came through on the afternoon of August 3rd from Anne Hewes — the Environmental Manager of EcoMaine — alerting Rick Perkins — the Bureau of Air Quality’s Complaint Response Inspector for the Southern Maine Region — to the presence of the pink fumes.
“I left you a vMail and wanted to ensure you rec’d ecomaine’s message that we experienced a pink fume release from the A-Stack over 2 ½ hours this morning (9:20 – 11:50),” the email said.
“The WTE [waste-to-energy] operators brought the A-Boiler off-line, stopped feeding waste and cleared off the grates. They are investigating several areas of consideration and taking corrective actions,” Hewes wrote. “Also, periodic ash samples were collected that will be analyzed to help trace what the source of the pink was from.”
Other messages reveal that early communications regarding the potential cause of the colored release centered around DEP staff searching online to see if something like this had occurred anywhere else.
An exchange between Jane Gilbert — the contact for licensing and permit assistance in the Bureau of Air Quality — William Longfellow — Director of Innovation and Assistance for the Maine DEP — and Joel Gilbert — Data and CQI Manager for the Maine Department of Corrections shows the initial confusion.
Jane Gilbert reached out to Longfellow and Joel Gilbert with a picture of the pink vapor writing: “This is a recent pic of ecomaine in Portland. Curious….”
In response, Joel Gilbert said, “Wow, that’s um….colorful! What makes that color!?”
Jane Gilbert then replied: “According to the experience of a municipal waste combustor in another state (google news search), iodine makes that color (absolutely not supposed to be in trash, certainly not in that quantity).”
In a separate email chain, Eric Kennedy — the licensing and compliance contact for the Maine Bureau of Air Quality (Maine BAQ) — shares that another individual, presumably a DEP employee, “found this article about a Covanta waste incineration facility in NJ that also would emit a colored plume (in their case, purple) from time to time.”
“That facility determined it was caused by a type of waste containing iodine they were receiving from a particular customer,” Kennedy said.
The morning after the initial incident, representatives from the Maine DEP reached out to EcoMaine to see if they had managed to narrow down the cause or sources of the pink vapor coming from their facility.
Based on Hewes’ response to the DEP’s inquiries, it appears that EcoMaine brought experts from the Maine BAQ, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC), and the Maine Bureau of Resource and Waste Management (Maine BRWM) to the site to investigate.
Perkins later details a conversation he had with Hewes, articulating that the main takeaway was that, according to EcoMaine, there was “no definitive source yet” for the waste that caused the pink release.
According to Perkins’ account of the conversation, EcoMaine responded to the vapor sighting by “stopping flow of trash into Boiler A (“flop gates” closed)” and “investigating all including their fly ash for iodine content and other possible links.”
“They also viewed the grates and noticed nothing out of the ordinary,” Perkins said. “Many researching on line since they haven’t seen that color stack emissions before.”
Perkins also noted that EcoMaine “record[ed] several 6 minute opacity exceedances and Anne will submit the 48 hr initial notification tomorrow once more info is available.”
The opacity, or transparency, of an emissions stream is one metric federal regulations use to limit emissions into the atmosphere. It refers to the degree to which an emission limits visibility.
In the following hours, there were multiple exchanges among Maine DEP employees about iodine, its chemical properties, and the potentiality that it posed a health hazard.
One such conversation explored whether iodine would “turn into something else via combustion.”
This question — posed by the Commissioner of the Maine DEP Melanie Loyzim — was answered in part by Kennedy who noted that iodine is not flammable and therefore “would most likely go through the combustors without burning.”
“I don’t know if it would chemically react with other compounds in some way though,” he said.
Jeff Crawford — the Maine BAQ director — then chimed in with some information “from online” about iodine, quoting: “Iodine on heating forms a purple vapour which turns back to grey iodine crystals when it cools. There is no change because all of the iodine vapour turns back to solid iodine crystals.”
Other emails reveal Maine DEP employees were Googling the possibility that the iodine release posed a health hazard.
Lindsay Hammes — the Director of Communications for the Maine CDC — wrote in an email to several other state officials on the day of the release that it “sounds like there may not be much of a public health impact” but that they shouldn’t “necessarily go so far as to say that in case [they] learn[ed] more about what this is/was…and wish[ed] to change [their] tune.”
Commissioner Loyzim later responded in this same email chain that “iodine is not a HAP [hazardous air pollutant]” so they “don’t monitor for it nor require emission testing for it.”
The next day, sightings of pink vapor were once again reported back to the Maine DEP and discussed internally at EcoMaine.
Emails show that EcoMaine notified the DEP of the second incident and officials returned to the facility to investigate.
The emails indicate that ash was collected at the facility and sent out to an out-of-state lab for testing. In addition to conducting tests to look for the presence of iodine, officials also discussed that tests should be ordered to look for traces of other substances, including 13 “priority” metals.
Crawford suggested that “while everything points to iodine, a more comprehensive suite of tests could help rule out other possibilities.”
The emails obtained by the Maine Wire do not reveal that a definitive source was ever identified by EcoMaine or the Maine DEP, but it was suggested frequently throughout the correspondences that medical waste was the most likely culprit.
Several days after the incidents, Lisa Higgins — a state environmental engineer — asked: “Did they figure it out?”
“Geesh….not a good look,” Higgins said. “I wonder if they took in some medical supplies…idk where so much Iodine would come from.”
In response to this, Jane Gilbert wrote: “I don’t know. It seemed a little surreal to me, how quickly and blithely the concern was whisked away. (???)”
“I would think it would take a lot of something to turn the stack pink for an extended period,” Higgins replied. “Very strange.”
In a written statement, David Madore — Deputy Commissioner of the Maine DEP — told the Maine Wire that “the source of these suspected higher than normal levels of iodine have not been determined and may not be able to be determined.”
“EcoMaine has reviewed the waste management practices and procedures of two potential sources of waste that could have contained high levels of iodine, but did not find any evidence that either one was the cause of the incidents in August,” Madore said.
When asked if practices had been adopted to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, Madore said that “EcoMaine conducts inspections of some of the waste materials that come into their facility, but it’s difficult to discern which loads of waste may contain high levels of iodine when there are multiple potential sources of waste that could contain iodine coming into the facility.”
Madore also noted that “EcoMaine has conducted outreach through press releases to educate the public and businesses on how to properly dispose of different waste streams.”
In response to a question about whether or not EcoMaine would face any fines or penalties as a result of the incident, Madore said that no decisions relating to potential enforcement actions will be made until EcoMaine’s investigation is complete.
“The Department has not and will not decide to pursue enforcement action in relation to these events until EcoMaine has finished their investigation into the incident’s possible causes, finished the ongoing ash sampling and analysis study we requested, and until the Department has finished its review of all the relevant data,” Madore said.
Nathan Cronauer — Acting Communications Manager for EcoMaine — told the Maine Wire that the facility has found it “challenging to identify exactly where the Iodine came from” because they “receive waste from 73 communities.”
“We are not certain where the Iodine may have come from,” Cronauer said.
When asked what protocols EcoMaine has in place to ensure that hazardous materials are not burned, Cronauer replied: “Policies, tipping hall inspection, video monitoring, and public education/outreach.”
Cronauer did not provide any further specifics about how EcoMaine safeguards against the burning of dangerous or toxic substances.
According to Cronauer, if hazardous materials are discovered in the waste, “they are removed and handled appropriately.”
Again, Cronauer did not elaborate further on the specifics of how this is done.
When asked what differed about the incident in August that prevented the aforementioned protocols from allowing EcoMaine to identify the irregular waste prior to burning and the source of the waste after burning, Cronauer simply said:
“This was the first time we experienced this in 35 years of operation, so not common. Other plants across the country have experienced similar circumstances.”
As of now, there are a number of unknowns related to the incident at EcoMaine, and it still remains to be seen whether the “environmentally responsible” waste management plant will ultimately face any consequences from the Maine DEP as a result of the incident.