July 29, 2013

DEP calls for weakening of Maine smog regulations

Critics say the changes would remove Maine from a regional effort to control cross-border pollution.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is seeking to weaken one of the state's key anti-smog regulations.

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The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has not scheduled a public hearing on the changes, and posted notices on its website so inconspicuously that the groups monitoring such proposals didn't see them until last week. Above, Maine DEP commissioner Patricia Aho.

Carl D. Walsh / Staff Photographer

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Read the notice of the proposal
Read the DEP's technical analysis

The proposed changes would exempt major new or newly upgraded industrial polluters in Maine from several measures that aim to reduce ground-level ozone in accordance with the federal Clean Air Act.

Critics say the changes would effectively remove Maine from a 13-state regional effort to control cross-border ozone pollution, undermining a project that has reduced smog in Maine.

"This is an attempt by the LePage administration to weaken clean air health standards from the biggest polluters in the state and it just doesn't make sense," said Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club's Maine chapter. "It's moving Maine in the wrong direction."

The DEP has not scheduled a public hearing on the changes and posted notices on its website so inconspicuously that environmental groups monitoring such proposals didn't see them until last week. The proposal was behind a link titled "Opportunity for Comment" on the department's rule-making page.

Public comment, the proposal says, ends Tuesday.

"The notice was buried on the DEP's Web page," said attorney Ivy Frignoca of the Conservation Law Foundation. "This goes to the whole issue of a lack of transparency."

The proposal calls for revisions to the state's air pollution plan so that "major new and modified stationary sources of ozone precursors would no longer be subject to the requirement to obtain emissions offsets and meet lowest achievable emission rate requirements." To go into effect, it must receive approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Ron Severance, who served as division director at the state DEP's air bureau for 15 years and is now retired, said the proposal is shortsighted and bad policy.

"From a practical point of view, it's going to mean a worsening of public health," Severance said. "It's going to allow higher levels of ozone back into the state again."

The requirements the LePage administration is seeking to lift are currently adhered to by all 13 member states in what is called the Ozone Transport Region, a regional agreement to reduce cross-border pollution by standardizing smog-reducing measures across much of the Northeast. The agreement, part of the Clean Air Act revisions passed by Congress in 1990, is widely credited for ending finger-pointing and blame-shifting among Northeast states.

Although most of the fixed-source emissions that can form smog in Maine drift in from upwind states to the south and west, Maine regulators had previously agreed to adhere to the tougher pollution standards for Maine industries at least partly as a kind of political good-faith gesture. In effect, Maine has said that it will not expect other states to do anything that it isn't doing itself.

"The way we have cleared our air in the past 20 years is through regional agreements like this one, and if we do this we will be shirking our responsibility to control smog pollution and may lead other states in the New England region to pull out of the agreement," Brand said. "Then we'll be back to where we were 25 years ago."

In a written statement, the DEP argued that Maine should not have to adhere to the same standards as other areas of the Northeast because all areas of Maine currently meet federal ozone standards.

"Maine is faced with a basic equity problem that its major sources are subject to the same emission offset and requirements as sources in upwind nonattainment areas and states that contribute significantly to downwind air pollution, even though Maine is meeting the ozone (standards) and has repeatedly demonstrated that emissions from Maine sources do not cause or contribute to nonattainment (of ozone standards) in any other area," the statement read.

In its 17-page brief on the proposed changes, the department also notes that Maine emissions "do not cause or contribute to ozone transport or production" in Connecticut and other areas of the northeastern United States that are not meeting ozone pollution standards. "Thus," it argues, "reductions ... in Maine are not necessary" to help bring those areas into compliance.

Other parts of the Northeast are also currently in compliance with standards, but are not seeking to withdraw from the smog requirements, including all of Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts (except for the island of Martha's Vineyard).

The statement also said that while the DEP believes it could opt out of a wider range of requirements, it was "only requesting to partially opt-out of some" of them. "Maine is not seeking a waiver from any other obligations established to (the Clean Air Act), and will continue to implement all other existing and newly promulgated control requirements," it reads.

Marc Cone, the DEP's air bureau director, said the department worked with EPA officials to come up with the changes, and "they are fully behind the technical and scientific rationale behind them."

Cone said the rules make no sense for Maine, a rural state that contributes relatively little to the region's ozone problem, but were harming business.

"We've had a couple of facilities that wanted to expand -- be it a sawmill or a pellet manufacturer or a paper mill that wants to increase production -- and one of the roadblocks has been that they have to get these emissions offsets," he said.

Severance said the DEP's argument is a poor one. "Because we meet standards now, therefore they say our entire state shouldn't have to do anything," he said. "That's incredibly shortsighted. We should be maintaining these (pollution) strategies because we're on the verge of knocking back over into nonattainment." He also said the EPA has more stringent standards in the works, which could change the status of some Maine counties.

As recently as 2004, much of coastal Maine did not meet federal ozone standards, according to the DEP's brief, which is dated Feb. 11.

Under Commissioner Patricia Aho, the DEP has undertaken an extensive redesign of its website, eliminating 80 percent of its Web pages for what Aho has described as "better search results and usability."

Cone said the DEP published a newspaper notice of the proposed changes according to department policy. A DEP spokesperson said the notice appeared in the Kennebec Journal in Augusta on June 29.

In letters sent to the DEP on Monday, three environmental groups call on the department to hold a public hearing. The Sierra Club, the Conservation Law Foundation and Natural Resources Council of Maine say the changes need public exposure, scrutiny and discussion.

"This proposal marks a very substantial change in Maine policy," NRCM advocacy director Pete Didisheim wrote, "and it should not be made without a full vetting of the possible negative implications for Maine."

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com

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