August 3, 2013

Request to relax Maine anti-smog rule fires up air quality debate

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Neither request generated significant controversy. Only two organizations submitted comments to the EPA during the process in 2006.

Marc Cone, director of the DEP's Air Quality Bureau, noted that air quality in Maine continued to improve even with the waivers. He said, "We continue to get better emissions levels because we have very well-controlled sources."

But the LePage administration's more sweeping waiver request is proving much more contentious.

"What is being proposed by the DEP now is far beyond anything that has been requested previously," said Pete Didisheim, senior director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

By requesting statewide waivers for volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, Didisheim said, Maine is essentially removing itself from the regional ozone-control program.

"The idea that we would pull the plug is completely missing the point of what the (Ozone Transport Region) was intended to do, and that is as a big group of states we should move under the same set of rules for clean air," Didisheim said.


The debate in Maine could be moot if the Obama administration hands down tougher health standards for ground-level ozone.

In 2008, the Bush administration lowered the health standard for ground-level ozone from 80 to 75 parts per billion. That standard is used in a complicated formula to determine whether regions are in compliance with the federal standard. Public health organizations argued that 75 parts per billion is too high, and sued the Bush administration in federal court under the Clean Air Act.

In 2010, the EPA proposed lowering the standard further, to 60 to 70 parts per billion, a level that health organizations have said is much more protective of public health. A year later, President Obama rejected the proposed lower standard. Health groups then renewed their lawsuit.

There are reports that the EPA may impose more stringent standards in 2014. If that happens, areas of Maine that now meet the federal standard may become non-compliant, said Miller with the American Lung Association.

"The fact that Maine is 'in attainment' for ozone is only because the ozone standard isn't set where it should be," Miller said.

The DEP's Cone acknowledged that under the Clean Air Act, any waivers from the Ozone Transport Region requirements would be null if Maine were to fall out of compliance. But Cone said it is premature to speculate how Maine's status would be affected until new standards are implemented.

"We continue to see that downward trend" in emissions, Cone said. "We expect it will continue to go down." 

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: kmiller@mainetoday.com


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