Foul smells at Pioneer cause worry

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AUBURN – Deana Chapman said it smelled like spoiled hamburger, strong enough to startle her awake at 2:30 a.m.

“At first, I thought it was natural gas, and I woke my husband up and we all got out of the house,” Chapman said. She called the Auburn Fire Department, which checked her house for gas leaks. They didn’t find any.

Reassured, the family went back to bed. But Chapman said she called the Fire Department the next morning to see if they had any news.

“They said it was Pioneer Plastics, and plenty of other people had called in, too,” she said.

That was last summer. It’s been a regular occurrence since then, Chapman said. She lives about 1.75 miles, through the air, from the plant.

“It happens once a month, usually when the air is more dense and the wind is blowing in the right direction,” she said. “My only concern is for the safety of our kids.”

She’s talked to city officials and state health officials and was concerned enough to bring it up to city councilors and the mayor at a Ward 5 neighborhood meeting Monday night.

Company officials said their operation is safe. Fumes that find their way off the south Auburn campus come from the materials used to make plastic laminates for tabletops and counters, they said.

“The material is a resin additive that we use in our laminate manufacturing process,” Jeffrey O’Hearn, corporate environmental engineer for Panolam Industries International, wrote in an e-mail Thursday. Panolam is the parent company of Pioneer Plastics.

The smell comes from small amounts of sulfur in the plastic resins the company uses, according to O’Hearn.

“The odor may be emitted when the material is unloaded at the facility,” he wrote. “The process is in compliance with our facility air permit.”

Roy Rike, compliance inspector for the Maine Bureau of Air Quality, confirmed that the company stays within technical and legal limits. They file reports every six months on the status of their air-quality equipment. Those reports show no violations and few chances for violations to occur.

The company also notifies Rike of any equipment failures that could lead to air-polluting incidents. There have been equipment malfunctions, but they haven’t led to air pollution, Rike said.

While smelling bad, sulfur poses little risk, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA categorizes sulfur as among the least toxic for oral or skin irritation.

“It may smell bad, but it’s not going to hurt you,” Rike said.

The best bet for concerned citizens is to continue doing what they’ve done. Report similar smells to the fire department or the company. All of the company’s reports and files are open for inspection at his office, he said.

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