Mind and Body

Deciphering what is in the stench from Allens Avenue

Data from an ambient air monitoring station on Prairie Avenue for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, run by the EPA, cannot identify a specific source, given the numerous sources in the area

Photo by Richard Asinof

The view from the parking lot at CCRI, adjacent to the Urban League of Rhode Island building on Prairie Avenue, at which the airborne monitoring station for pollutants is located, which includes polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, roughly .6 miles from the Sprague Operating Resources storage facility on Allens Avenue.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/3/19
The filing of a notice of violation by DEM for odors allegedly emanating for storage tanks holding asphalt products at the Sprague Operating Resources facility may provide incentives to establish additional monitoring related to the specific emissions from the facility.
What kinds of evidence would be needed to establish that the strong odors are related to airborne toxic contaminants and may be causing short-term and long-term health impacts to nearby residents and workers at nearby hospitals? Is it a matter that could be pursued legally by the R.I. Attorney General under public endangerment laws? Are there research scientists in Rhode Island who can provide analysis of the existing data and its potential health hazards?
Scent is the sense closest link to memory, according to a number of research scientists. It exhibits a strong influence on our emotions, linking past and present, influencing our perception of time. Over time, we often become inured to the industrial smells that have become a constant part of our lives.

PROVIDENCE – The lyrics to an organizing song written by Ken Silver, an expert of toxics, entitled: “We demand the right to know,” came to me as I drove to see if I could identify the U.S. EPA monitoring station at the Urban League of Rhode Island on Prairie Avenue: If my kids eat it, drink it and breathe it, it’s no company trade secret.

The recent decision by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management to issue a notice a violation against Sprague Operating Resources for the noxious odor alleged to be emanating from its tanks storing asphalt products at its Allens Avenue facility came a number of years after citizens complained repeatedly about the stench. [See link below to the ConvergenceRI story, “The stench that is eating the Providence waterfront?”]

The action by DEM to issue of a notice of violation for the odor provoked a series of questions about the potential toxic attributes of the strong odors allegedly emanating from the storage tanks located at the Sprague facility on Allens Avenue, and whether or not they could be correlated with any air monitoring results for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

ConvergenceRI first reached out to Gail Mastrati, the spokeswoman at R.I. DEM, who responded promptly.

ConvergenceRI: Did DEM, in coordination with any other state or federal agencies, monitor and test the air emissions from Sprague Operating Resources for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, as an airborne contaminant?
MASTRATI:
No

ConvergenceRI: If not, why not?
MASTRATI:
It is difficult to perform ambient air monitoring to identify a specific source in this area given the numerous sources of PAHs e.g., vehicular traffic, facilities in the area that burn heating oil [Rhode Island Hospital, other industries].

ConvergenceRI: If so, could you please share with me the available data on what was found?
MASTRATI:
Not applicable

ConvergenceRI: What are the guidelines and standards in Rhode Island for airborne contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH?
MASTRATI:
PAHs are regulated under the Rhode Island Air Toxics Regulation, Part 22, “Air Toxics,” under the category of Polycyclic Organic Matter or “POM” and Rhode Island Air Pollution Control Regulation, Part 9, “Air Pollution Control Permits.”

If a stationary source has the potential to increase emissions greater than the minimum quantity specified in Part 9 [0.01 lbs./year of POM], it would be required to apply for and obtain an air pollution control permit.

ConvergenceRI: Given the proximity of the storage tanks at Sprague Operating Resources and other ongoing asphalt operations nearby, has there been any monitoring stations set up at Rhode Island Hospital or Women & Infants Hospital to determine the level of airborne contamination of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH?
MASTRATI:
DEM does not have any air monitoring stations for PAHs at these locations. DEM does operate an air monitoring station, approximately 0.6 miles from the Sprague facility, at 246 Prairie St. in Providence that measures PAHs; however the data from this station cannot be directly correlated to a specific source for the same reasons stated above.

Further questions
ConvergenceRI also reached out to the R.I. Department of Health, following information contained in a story concerning the analyses performed by the agency’s laboratory concerning air emissions from a proposed natural gas compressor facility in Weymouth, Mass., which had been requested by the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection.

Joseph Wendelken, the spokesman for the R.I. Department of Health, referred ConvergenceRI to the U.S. EPA New England Regional Office in Boston, Mass., which technically is responsible for running the monitoring station at the Prairie Avenue location, under contract with the state of Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI then contacted Dave Deegan, the communications officer, asking for any available data regarding PAH emissions from the Prairie Avenue site in Providence.

Deegan sent back the link to the tool available on EPA’s national website, where he said ConvergenceRI would be able to “access this data directly.” Basically, Deegan, continued, “Data for all pollutants detected by air quality monitors in the U.S. is here.”

A better response
Karen Slattery, the supervising air quality specialist in the Planning, Toxics and Monitoring Section at R.I. DEM in the Office of Air Resources, responded with a much more complete response to questions about the data being collected at the Prairie Avenue site.

Slattery explained that the U.S. EPA had established the National Air Toxics Trends Station, or NATTS program, to collect long-term monitoring data of consistent quality. “There are 27 NATTS sites operating nationwide. One such site is operating in Rhode Island at the Urban League in Providence.”

Slattery continued: “As part of the NATTS network, we do monitor for several PAH compounds. Samples are collected every six days and analyzed by an EPA contractor. That data is currently available through 2018.”

More questions

ConvergenceRI has reached out to Richard Dennison, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, for assistance in analyzing the data on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Stay tuned.

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