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August 7, 2023

Maine DEP investigates colorful emissions at Portland waste-to-energy plant

street sidewalk trashbins Courtesy / ecomaine The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is investigating the cause of "pinkish-purple" emissions from a Portland waste-to-energy facility last week.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection said it is investigating why pinkish-purple emissions came out of a Portland waste-to-energy facility during the mornings of Aug. 3 and Aug. 4. 

The vapor rose from one of the stacks at the Blueberry Road facility, which is operated by ecomaine. Employees and members of the public reported spotting the unusual, highly visible emissions.  

Staff from the DEP's Bureau of Air Quality and Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management have been onsite and are working to determine the cause of the problem, potential health and environmental impacts, and how to avoid similar emissions in the future, according to a news release.

In addition to reviewing records and ensuring appropriate operations of ecomaine’s air pollution control equipment, air bureau staff are working analyze ash samples from the facility. 

Staff from the Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management are working to identify potential sources of waste that may have led to the emissions. The department is also working closely with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the potential public health impact of the emissions and the population potentially exposed based on prevailing winds.

Purple haze

The colorful vapor was first noticed around 9:20 a.m. on Thursday.

Plant operators “promptly responded by investigating the issue and took the appropriate corrective actions to resolve it,” the company said. “Within 2 ½ hours, the issue was corrected and normal operations resumed.”

The company said it believed the cause of the vapor was likely due to a load of waste received earlier that morning that contained iodine. Iodine has been known to cause purplish vapor to be emitted. 

“This was probably caused by a larger than normal amount of iodine present in the waste stream all at once” said Kevin Roche, CEO of ecomaine. 

Employees soon got the plant back to normal operations, he said. But a second episode occurred on Friday.

“While we’ve been able to identify what we believe is causing the problem, we have not yet been able to identify the source of where this waste is coming from” Roche said in a follow-up statement. “Like yesterday, we were able to keep the incident to a relatively short period of time — 2 ½ hours — before returning to normal operations.”

The company said the “pinkish-purple vapor” was uncommon and had never before been seen at the ecomaine facility, although several other waste-to-energy sites around the country have experienced the effect when iodine is in their combustion chambers. 

Iodine is commonly used in pharmaceuticals, disinfectants, inks, animal feed supplements and photographic chemicals. 

While vaporized iodine can pose health risks if directly inhaled, it is unlikely anyone had direct exposure due to the relatively short time the incident occurred and its location, ecomaine said.

The height and location of the stack also provided for “appreciable dispersion,” the company added.

The plant is used by ecomaine to process waste from 74 Maine communities and generate electricity through the waste incineration.  

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