AUGUSTA — A LePage administration proposal to withdraw most of Maine from a regional air pollution program drew support from Maine’s forest products industry Monday but strong pushback from environmentalists and health advocates.

For the second time in five years, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is asking federal regulators to exempt parts of Maine from tougher emissions standards for pollutants that cause smog or ground-level ozone. DEP officials said the proposed change – which would remove all of Maine except Acadia National Park and the 10 coastal communities in York County from the 11-state Ozone Transport Region – reflects the progress made on improving air quality as well as the “negligible impact” that Maine industries have on smog problems in other Northeastern states.

Yet opponents portrayed the request as a potentially harmful rollback of a collaborative air pollution program that has helped improve Maine’s air quality.

During a public hearing, representatives from more than a dozen paper and lumber mills as well as industry representatives argued that removing Maine from the Ozone Transport Region would help them compete while encouraging investment.

Anthony Hourihan with New Brunswick-based Irving Forest Products, which operates two sawmills and owns more than 1 million acres in Maine, compared the Ozone Transport Region, or OTR, to “death by a thousand cuts.” The prospect of having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars – or even millions of dollars – to comply with regulatory requirements in Maine can certainly factor into a company’s decision about whether to invest here or in neighboring Canada.

“The OTR today is another fix looking for a problem, especially where our mills are operating,” Hourihan told DEP officials.

But health and environmental groups warned that withdrawing most of Maine from the Ozone Transport Region will lead to more emissions of harmful smog-causing pollution and send the wrong message to the other states.

“Removing the rest of the state could be the beginning of the unraveling of the partnership on which Acadia (National Park) depends for its high-quality air quality,” said Stephanie Clement, conservation director at Friends of Acadia. “It sends the wrong signal to other states that Maine is not fully engaged in reducing our own contributions to ground-level ozone and that we are leaving it up to them to shoulder the responsibility of protecting Maine’s air quality.”

Maine is often described as being at the end of the tailpipe of air pollution created in more populous states to the south and west. The result is that parts of Maine – particularly the southern coast and the higher elevations around Acadia National Park – still experience unhealthy air days, typically during summer when airborne pollutants combine with sunlight to produce ground-level ozone. The DEP has issued three “air quality alerts” for ground-level ozone since May.

As part of the federal Clean Air Act, Maine and the 10 other states within the OTR are required to impose tougher controls on industries that emit nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, the two key components of smog. Ground-level ozone irritates the lungs and can cause serious health problems in the elderly, the very young or individuals with asthma or other breathing impairments.

In their petition to federal regulators, DEP officials noted that the entire state has met federal standards for ground-level ozone since 2007 and that most of the areas that would be removed have never been in “non-attainment.” The EPA has already granted previous waiver requests from the Ozone Transport Region – submitted by Govs. Angus King, John Baldacci and Paul LePage – without harming the state’s air quality, the department said.

“Granting the petition will not degrade the air quality in Maine or in any other state,” the DEP wrote in a summary of the petition. “Required (pollution) controls for existing facilities in Maine will not be relaxed upon removal of portions of the state from the OTR, thus ensuring that air quality does not degrade.”

Environmental and health groups sought to debunk those assurances Monday, however.

Dylan Voorhees, clean-energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the purpose of the DEP’s request is to allow new or expanding businesses to emit more ozone-causing pollutants by not subjecting them to tighter standards.

“The claim in the petition that the proposal will not degrade air quality, we think, is false,” Voorhees said. “Unless there are no new or expanded facilities, emissions will increase, which will affect our air quality.”

Dr. Marguerite Pennoyer, an allergy and immunology specialist from Scarborough, compared the health impacts of ground-level ozone to “a sunburn on the lungs” that is particularly dangerous to those with asthma.

“The proposal . . . is based on the premise that we can relax provisions in the Clean Air Act that have been working for decades because progress has been made in cleaning up the air,” said Pennoyer, a member of the leadership board of the American Lung Association in Maine. “While it is certainly correct that we have made improvement, we are not in a position to declare victory. It’s especially alarming to make changes here in Maine at a time when the Trump administration and many in Congress are trying to roll back policies that have led to this improvement.”

But supporters, who outnumbered opponents 3 to 1 during Monday’s hearing, said the tougher OTR regulations have unnecessarily driven up costs and, in some cases, cost jobs.

Stratton Lumber recently completed a conversion to a “continuous dry kiln” system – the first in the Northeast – that improves efficiency and output at the mill. But Allan Ryder, president of the Timber Resource Group that runs the Stratton Lumber and Fontaine sawmills, said the company had to accept lower production limits to avoid triggering “the more difficult and burdensome” emissions controls required under the OTR. Otherwise, Stratton would have to purchase VOC emissions offset credits potentially costing millions of dollars, he said.

Scott Beal with St. Croix Tissue mill in Baileyville said the company faced having to purchase 185 tons of offsets for VOCs and nitrogen oxide in order to add new tissue machines. St. Croix Tissue ultimately avoided that expense by surrendering an air emissions license at another facility no longer in operation. But if that option had not been available, Beal said, the company would have had to spend $765,000 to $2 million on offsets that he said would not benefit the state and are not required at competitor mills in non-OTR states or Canadian provinces.

“We would have been just as well-off by taking three-quarters-of-a-million dollars out in the parking lot and burning it for all of the good that would have come of it,” Beal said.

The DEP is accepting comment on the proposal through Aug. 10.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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