The height of the tourist season is an odd time to get into a big fight over relaxing Maine’s clean air standards. Millions come here to experience our lakes, mountains and seashore, and they are less likely to come back if they think there is a chance that next time the air might not be good to breathe.

But this is the time the LePage administration picked to exempt Maine industry from federal air-pollution standards for smog. Maine has benefited too much from improved air quality that comes from the Clean Air Act and should not move backward now.

The governor has said that relaxing the standards would have no impact on the amount of air pollution in the state and would be good for Maine’s economy.

He’s partly right on both counts.

Allowing companies to switch from oil to gas could actually reduce the amount of emission generated in the state, and removing the requirement that polluters buy emissions credits for nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds would save money and could encourage development.

That is the argument made by the pulp and paper industry, and it is supported by a former industry lobbyist, Patricia Aho, who since 2011 has been the commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The idea has been given preliminary support by the staff of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But that analysis may be shortsighted.

Maine’s air quality problems have always been the result of downwind polluters in the Great Lakes region, not local companies. Over the last decade the state has benefited from being part of a 13-state pact to reduce emissions. Maine has seen dramatic improvements in its air quality as a result.

Before getting a break for a few Maine businesses, the state should get assurance that other states don’t back out of the compact and resume polluting our air.

Saving money for Maine companies may be good for our economy, but lowering air quality and interfering with the health of Maine residents would not. We already have some of the nation’s highest rates of asthma, a chronic lung disease that is aggravated by air pollution. Since joining the compact Maine has seen great strides in reducing ozone and particulate pollution, and Maine would be the biggest loser if downwind states resumed previous levels of pollution.

That would not only be bad for the health of Maine residents, it also would interfere with the state’s top industry — tourism. People who come here for our pristine natural environment are less likely to vacation here if the number of bad air quality days increases, whether the pollution was created here or blown here by the wind.

Gov. LePage is right: We don’t have to choose between a healthy environment and a strong economy. Maine’s environmental and economic interests are well aligned.

Maine has little to gain from getting out of the Clean Air Act requirements and too much to lose.


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