For years, Maine has been part of a regional effort to reduce ozone pollution in the air that exacerbates asthma and has been linked to other health problems. Now, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection wants to adopt less stringent standards and move most of Maine out of the Ozone Transport Region.
Studies show most air pollution such as NOx, nitrogen oxides and Volatile Organic compounds are carried by prevailing winds to Maine from states to the south and west, and these chemicals lead to smog and unhealthy air. Maine also contributes to the problem, but it has been part of a collaborative agreement with other northeastern states to set more stringent pollution limits. And the effort has paid off. Now the Maine DEP has petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to move most of the state out of the Ozone Transport Region agreement.
Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine says such a move is out of step with Mainers' values.
“Most Maine people have abandoned the old idea that environmental protection is at odds with economic development,” Voorhees says. “They understand that clean air, land and water are essential to Maine’s economy.”
Voorhees says Maine’s tourism economy is dependent on clean air and water.
Stephanie Clement of the group Friends of Acadia argues that pollution limits are essential to keep Acadia National Park's economic engine humming.
“In 2017, visitors spent over $284 million in the communities surrounding the park, making possible an estimated 4,106 jobs and labor income of over $107 million,” says Clement. “Clean air is fundamental to the tourism economy of our region.”
It is also fundamental to Mainers living a healthy life, says Rebecca Boulos, executive director of the Maine Public Health Association. She points out that more than half of all Maine residents experienced nearly a month or more of unhealthy air last year, and calls the administration's position "irresponsible."
Voorhees puts it a different way:
“If they keep this up, Maine’s DEP is going to need a new name,” he says. “Maybe the ‘department of encouraging pollution.’”
Marc Cone, director of the Bureau of Air Quality at DEP, says that this opposition is a mischaracterization, given the progress the state has made.
“It is harsh, considering this similar action has occurred three times before and we continue to see emission, ozone levels, to be reduced,” he says.
Cone is referring to waivers granted in past years to relax pollution standards. He says those past waivers have shown that Maine can attain its air quality goals without tougher standards.The current proposal asks for a permanent change in the rules.
“We have absolutely got a tremendous amount of science,” he says. “There’s a decade’s worth of monitoring and back trajectory looking at where the air came from. And it demonstrates that we are protective of the air quality in this state.”
But Clement worries that if Maine is not seen as doing its part to address pollution-generating emissions, other states that are the source of most of Maine’s polluted air will follow suit and lower standards.
“If Maine signals to other states that we don’t have to do our whole part, how can we trust those other states to do their whole part for Acadia national Park?” Clement asks.
Public comment on the proposed rule is now over. Under administrative law, the final rule that the Department puts forth may be challenged in court.