Protecting our environment vital for economy, health

Posted Oct. 27, 2010, at 1:42 p.m.

You might not realize it, but the boilers and furnaces in our basements could have a big impact on our tourism industry, and in turn, our state’s economy.

So, what’s the connection? Sulfur.

Sulfur is one of the emissions released from burning fossil fuels to heat our homes and it is a primary cause of regional haze pollution in Maine and throughout New England. Regional haze obscures the views of mountain ranges, city skylines, and scenic vistas. It poses a real threat to our pristine coastline, state and national parks, and our air quality — which are primary drivers of our tourism industry and our economy.

With nearly 2 million visitors per year, Acadia National Park is one of Maine’s prime destinations for tourists. The park’s rugged coast, granite peaks, and diverse plant and animal life are vital to Maine’s tourism industry as well as our environmental landscape. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, Acadia generates $137 million in annual visitor spending, supporting more than 3,500 local jobs.

But the park’s landscape is threatened by pollution caused by sulfur.

Natural visibility conditions in the East are estimated at over 60 to 80 miles in most locations. Under current polluted conditions, average visibility ranges from 20 to 40 miles. On the worst days, regional haze can reduce visibility to just a few miles.

In addition to threatening our scenic views and pristine landscape, the sulfur that causes regional haze poses a significant health threat.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide is linked to “an array of adverse respiratory effects including broncho-constriction and increased asthma symptoms … [and] increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses, particularly in at-risk populations.”

Air quality remains a significant problem and a pressing concern in Maine. Our state has one of the highest rates of lung disease in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The various pulmonary illnesses result in over $150 million in health care costs in this state.

While you may think sulfur pollution is caused only by emissions from out of state that drift into Maine, the evidence suggests otherwise.

According to testimony from the Natural Resources Council of Maine, “cars, trucks and power plants — especially coal plants — from New York, Boston and further afield do contribute to Maine’s air quality problems because their population densities and total emissions levels are high. But air pollution also dissipates with distance, so emissions closer to home can be as threatening as greater emissions further away.”

That’s why passing a law in the state Legislature to lower the sulfur levels in No. 2 heating oil was such an important step.

We’ve already made the switch to ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel for our cars and trucks. Now we will be doing the same for home heating oil. The result will be cleaner air.

The law we passed this year to reduce sulfur in heating oil and similar fossil fuels is part of a specific regional strategy to leverage similar policies across the Northeast. Heating oil is the second largest source of sulfur emissions regionally (behind power plants, ahead of cars and trucks.)

New Jersey’s Low Sulfur Fuel Strategy is in review by its administration and is expected to move forward within the coming months; other states in the region are all working on similar proposals. The legislature in New York recently approved the low sulfur distillate provisions for its state.

Maine must continue — as we have in the past — to do our best to reduce our own contribution to air quality problems if we expect aggressive action by other states.

Reducing our sulfur emissions would go a long way to protect the environment, our parks, and in turn our economy.

Jim Schatz, D-Blue Hill, represents District 37 in the Maine House. He is the Democratic candidate for Senate District 28, which includes most of Hancock County.

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