August 6, 2011

Maine Voices: Washington must clear the air by updating pollution standards

Action is vital for Maine, which is at the end of the tailpipe for emissions from the south and west.

BELFAST - There is more going on in Washington these days than arguing over the federal budget.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
is the rector of St. Margaret’s Church in Belfast and was the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection from 1999-2003.

Some members of Congress are threatening to block the Environmental Protection Agency from updating the Clean Air Act with new and badly needed clean air and industrial pollution standards. This would have serious consequences for Maine people.

Living "Down East" is about more than geography: We are the easternmost state and downwind -- the end of the tailpipe for pollution coming from the south and west.

Much of this pollution is from coal-fired power plants, which have not had to install the air pollution control technologies required of other industrial sectors since the 1970s.

These emissions have unfairly burdened Maine businesses with required installation of air pollution control technologies based on Maine's poor air quality, though much of the problem is from out of state.

The worst ozone rolls into Acadia National Park around 8 p.m., cooked by the atmosphere of these hot summer days.

It is not surprising then that Maine has the highest asthma rate in the United States. Children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations pay the price.

Maine tourism and fishing are also affected. One drop of mercury can kill all the fish in a 20-acre lake, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. That neurotoxin is created when coal is burned and poses a serious health problem for children and pregnant women.

For me, and for many others, air quality is a moral issue and a matter of faith. We all need to breathe. My faith tradition calls on us to be good stewards of God's creation, and to care for "the least of these."

Recently, I joined a gathering of over 60 concerned people from 12 states to talk to our members of Congress about the importance of supporting the EPA as it works to strengthen the Clean Air Act.

I was there as a representative of Maine Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit inspired by diverse faith perspectives to care for the natural world and its most vulnerable inhabitants.

There are three critical actions taken or proposed by EPA, all of which are vitally important to Maine.

First is an updated ozone (smog) standard expected this summer. This standard tells the public when the air is safe to breathe. The science is clear that the current ozone standard fails to protect public health.

Second is toxic air pollution cleanup, especially mercury from power plants. Mercury, which ends up contaminating food, affects a child's ability to walk, talk, read, write and learn.

EPA estimates that this long overdue update to the Clean Air Act will prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year, and prevent 120,000 asthma attacks and about 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis among children annually. This final rule is expected to be released in November.

The third important issue involves the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, a vitally important and long overdue measure that will protect public health. Yet there are currently no limits on the amount of carbon pollution being spewed into the air. EPA is slated to release the first proposed standards for power plants and refiners this year.

The argument is sometimes made that "these rules will cost businesses money, and we can't afford that right now." This is false, because it assumes that the cost of the status quo is zero. In fact, the cost of doing nothing is significant.

EPA's benefit-to-cost analyses, which must by law go through rigorous peer review, show that the benefit-to-cost ratio of these rules is 30:1. That means that for every $1 spent on air pollution control technology, $30 will be saved in terms of avoided health care costs and other impacts. The public policy question is: Who will bear the costs?

These new rules put the solution to our air quality problems at the source, where they can be most effectively addressed.

We met with staffers for Sen. Olympia Snowe and Rep. Mike Michaud, and with Sen. Susan Collins and her staff.

I am grateful that our legislators took time to meet with our coalition of business, faith and public health leaders. We urge them to support the Clean Air Act.

We all need to let them know we care about this issue. The health of our children and our communities depend upon it.

- Special to The Press Herald

 

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