WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, two of the nation’s highest courts will hear two separate pollution cases with potential implications for air quality in Maine and its New England neighbors.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its legal bounds by seeking to hold states accountable for air pollution that drifts into downwind states.
Blocks away at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, lawyers will spar over EPA rules requiring coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic substances.
Both cases pit business interests – such as coal companies and utilities – against public health advocates. They will also, however, test the scope of the federal government’s regulatory reach under the Clean Air Act, with the resulting verdicts likely to affect future regulation.
“Maine has more of a stake than most states with these laws because of our geography,” said Ed Miller, senior vice president for policy at the American Lung Association of the Northeast. “And we have higher rates of lung disease, higher rates of asthma and we have a larger older population that tends to be more susceptible to air pollution.”
Maine is often described as being located at the “tailpipe” of pollution originating from the megalopolis stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C., and from Southern and Midwestern states with less stringent emissions requirements.
The Supreme Court case is likely to draw the most attention because it essentially pits industrial, coal-rich or coal-dependent states against states less reliant on the cheap, abundant but dirtier fuel source.
Under the Clean Air Act, states are largely responsible for cleaning up their own air pollution. The problem, according to Clean Air Task Force senior counsel David Marshall, is that much of the industrial pollution found in the skies over Northeastern states originated to the south or west.
The EPA’s 2011 cross-state air pollution rule allows the agency to impose stricter federal emissions levels for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide – key components of smog and harmful ground-level ozone – on 28 states. The EPA cited the Clean Air Act’s “Good Neighbor” clause, which aims to ensure one state does not overly contribute to air pollution in another.
“I think we have a strong legal case and I think we have a strong factual case,” said Marshall, who is based in New Hampshire.
Fifteen of the 28 states targeted by the EPA action disagreed, however. Their legal challenge, which is supported by another eight states, argues the agency violated states’ rights by bypassing their ability to regulate pollution sources within their own borders.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concurred last year, ruling that the EPA overstepped the authority granted to it by Congress. The court overturned the rule.
The other case centers on another 2011 EPA rule that set for the first time national standards for mercury and other toxins from power plants.
The rule required largely coal-fired power plants to begin transitioning to newer technology to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxins. Maine environmental regulators cheered the decision, and Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins later joined with Democrats and three other Republicans to block a bill that would have halted the rule.
MAINE BOAT-BUILDING AS A MODEL?
The former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, Karen Mills of Brunswick, recently held up Maine’s boat-building industry as a possible model for reviving local economies elsewhere.
Mills, who left President Obama’s Cabinet earlier this year, recently discussed the resurgence of the industry in a column posted online by the magazine Entrepreneur.
In 2005, Mills worked with then-Gov. John Baldacci to bring together boat builders, composite materials researchers at the University of Maine and economic development officials. The group discussed ways to expand and strengthen the “brand” of the state’s historic boat-building industry.
The result, she wrote, was greater collaboration, a “regional economic cluster” and the nonprofit Maine Built Boats. Today, sales of boats built in Maine (as opposed to the ships built at Bath Iron Works) top $650 million and the nonprofit has 50 member boat manufacturers and suppliers around the state.
“It’s true that at a time of continued fiscal austerity in state budgets, there’s limited room for investing in innovative economic growth programs,” wrote Mills, who is now a resident fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. “Yet, creating an ecosystem does not require a huge investment – even small incentives go a long way. At their core, entrepreneurial ecosystems are built on the belief that in local economies, the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts.”
SHIPBUILDERS MAKING NOISE, TOO
The nation’s shipbuilders, meanwhile, are trying to put additional pressure on Congress to avert the next round of federal budget cuts.
The Shipbuilders Council of America – a national trade group that includes companies such as General Dynamics, owner of BIW – launched a national campaign last week to call attention to the sequestration budget cuts.
The group seized on comments last month by the chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who warned the cuts will seriously impair the Navy’s readiness.
Greenert told Congress that if the next round of automatic sequestration budget cuts kicks in, the Navy may have to cancel or defer 34 of the 55 surface ship maintenance periods next fiscal year. Over the long term, he projected the Navy could find itself 50 ships short of its current goal by 2020 if the cuts are allowed to stay in place.
Greenert predicted the cuts and resulting employee furloughs would have a “debilitating effect” on worker retention and recruitment at public shipyards such as the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.
The Shipbuilders Council of America’s SOS: Save Our Ships campaign is using an online petition and advertising to pressure Congress. A pending budget deal between the House and Senate could blunt those cuts, however.
GIFFORDS GIVING TO COLLINS
Collins will be among the first recipients of a donation from a newly renamed political action committee created by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords of Arizona.
Giffords’ Rights and Responsibilities PAC will support lawmakers whose views on gun control align with hers. The first three lawmakers to receive donations will be Collins, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., according to USA Today. Collins is running for reelection next year.
Earlier this year, Collins and Hagan supported a measure co-sponsored by Toomey and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to expand background checks on private gun sales. The measure, which was part of the legislative response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, received bipartisan support but fell short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.
Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, have become high-profile advocates for stronger gun laws since Giffords and a dozen others were shot at an event in her district in 2011.
Giffords legally transferred roughly $300,000 from her campaign account to the new PAC, according to reports.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: