Politics

August 3, 2013

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

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Emissions of pollutants that cause smog in Maine have been cut in half over the past 30 years, a fact that experts attribute in part to a multistate collaboration that has dramatically improved air quality throughout the Northeast.

Now, a request by the LePage administration to exempt Maine from some anti-smog regulations has reignited debate over air quality in Maine and whether federal standards for ozone adequately protect public health.

Scientists, government officials and health organizations appear to agree that air quality in Maine and the rest of the region has improved markedly in recent decades. Since 2004, Maine has met federal standards for ground-level ozone – smog – a lung irritant that can cause serious breathing problems in the elderly, infirm or very young.

Data from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection shows that the primary components of ground-level ozone – nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds – have dropped since 1990, the year the 13-state Ozone Transport Region was established under the federal Clean Air Act.

Annual emissions of nitrogen oxides from factories and other "stationary sources" declined 56.6 percent – from 30,700 tons to 13,328 tons – from 1990 to 2011. Emissions of volatile organic compounds fell 62.5 percent in that period, from 9,183 tons a year to 3,446 tons.

Cars, trucks and other "mobile sources" pumped 32,274 tons of nitrogen oxides and 36,482 tons of volatile organic compounds into Maine's atmosphere in 2011, according to the DEP.

A comparable figure for 1990 was not available Friday, but mobile source emissions nationwide have dropped significantly under increasingly stringent auto emissions standards.

AIR QUALITY IMPROVED

Standards imposed on power plants a decade ago and less-polluting vehicles are key factors in the Northeast's improved air quality, said Russell Dickerson, a professor in the University of Maryland's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science.

Much of Maine's smog-causing pollution blows in from the "megalopolis" stretching from Washington, D.C., to Boston, and from coal-fired power plants in other states. So the Ozone Transport Region has played a major role in reducing emissions that cause smog in Maine, Dickerson said.

The American Lung Association of the Northeast and other health and environmental groups are upset at the LePage administration's recent application to exempt new or upgraded industrial facilities from key provisions of the Ozone Transport Region's regulations.

"What we have here is a false sense of security that the air quality is OK, and that concerns us," said Ed Miller, the lung association's senior vice president.

In its request to federal regulators, the DEP says Maine is meeting federal standards for ground-level ozone and is not contributing to smog in other states, so industries in Maine shouldn't have to buy "offset" credits for emissions or meet the most stringent emissions rates.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has drafted a preliminary approval of the request but will soon begin accepting public comment on the recommendation.

Maine appears to meet all of the technical criteria for a waiver from the Ozone Transport Region requirements, said Dave Conroy, chief of the Air Programs Branch for the EPA's New England region.

Even with a waiver, Conroy said, facilities would need state-of-the-art technology to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.

"The permitting requirements in place assume that the air quality does not degrade in areas that are currently meeting air quality standards," Conroy said. "To get a permit, facilities are going to have to go through the process and demonstrate they are not going to cause air violations."

MORE LIMITED WAIVERS

This is not the first time Maine has sought such an exemption from the EPA. The agency granted Maine more limited waivers for nitrogen oxides emissions in northern Maine in 2006, during the administration of Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, and in the mid-1990s, during the administration of independent Gov. Angus King.

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