It’s springtime in Maine. The trees are getting bright-green leaves. Flowers are beginning to bloom, and bumblebees are buzzing around my azaleas. Maine is a state known for its clean air and water, and its lush natural resources. But at times, it’s been a struggle to protect the health of our environment.

In South Portland, we’ve been working hard to address a major problem with fumes and hazardous emissions coming from above-ground petroleum storage tanks. These fumes have been sickening people in the neighborhoods surrounding the tanks. In March 2019, we learned that Global Partners had been violating the Clean Air Act for over a decade. The Environmental Protection Agency found these tanks were emitting twice the volatile organic compound than what the company was licensed for.  Not long after, South Portland was notified that Sprague Energy had also been issued a notice of violation.

To help address this problem, I introduced two bills in the Legislature, and the city of South Portland formed a Clean Air Advisory Committee. But as we’ve been working diligently at the state and local levels, the federal government has begun to undermine our efforts. While families and small businesses have been dealing with the ongoing pandemic and economic fallout, the Trump administration has turned its attention to rolling back the EPA’s clean air and water standards, including restrictions that protect wetlands and limit mercury emissions from power plants.

Anyone who remembers what the world was like before these regulations can tell you how vital they are. Sludge-clogged rivers and smog-choked cities weren’t some wild cautionary tale; they were real. And they made people sick. The middle of a worldwide health crisis is no time to roll back rules that protect not only our environment, but also our own health. How is limiting restrictions that are designed to keep our air clean going to help people who are trying to recover from a major respiratory infection?

The science already shows that people who live in more polluted areas are more likely to succumb to COVID-19. A recent study found that just a small increase in fine particulate matter corresponded with a 15 percent increase in deaths from the virus. Some researchers are beginning to suggest that pollution might be one reason New York City, in which some parts consistently report above-safe annual levels of these fine particulate matters, could have been hit so hard by the virus.

It might be easy to think that policies made in D.C. don’t have a big impact on us here in Maine. While having a functioning state government has insulated us from much of the dysfunction at the federal level, these changes in Washington will have a very real impact on us right here in Maine, and in the Portland area.

For starters, the “tailpipe” effect the jet stream has on Maine carries fumes, particulates and even wildfire smoke from California all the way to the East Coast. Earlier this year, scientists found that smoke from the Australia wildfires traveled around the entire globe, causing hazardous air conditions in Chile and Argentina. Now imagine the same effect, but with mercury-heavy fumes from power plants west of us. We’ve known for years that mercury causes myriad health problems including brain damage, especially in children.  Living at the end of this tailpipe has contributed as well to Maine’s high rate of asthma in adults.

This quote from a recent New York Times article stopped me in my tracks: “Patrick Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School, noted that in virtually every environmental rollback, (Donald) Trump’s EPA has acknowledged in the fine print that enormous increases in health problems and deaths will occur because of increased pollution.”

Officials in Washington know the harm that rolling back these regulations will cause. They know it will kill people. They admit to it in their own reports. Still, the administration is choosing to prioritize the bottom line of big businesses over the health of everyday people, even during a global pandemic. I’m not OK with it, and you shouldn’t be either.

Maine’s good work to preserve our environment and public health should not be put at risk, or worse, undone completely because of Washington politics.

 


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