BANGOR, Maine — In recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act of 1970, advocates for public health and the environment on Tuesday raised the alarm about impending threats to the federal law’s authority.
At press conferences in Portland and Bangor, activists said Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins must stand up to attacks in Congress against the Clean Air Act. Supporters say the act has prevented thousands of cases of respiratory disease and helped stem the flow of pollutants and climate-changing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Tuesday’s events highlighted a recent letter signed by more than 50 Maine public health experts and sent to President Barack Obama and members of Congress. The letter calls for strengthening the nation’s public health system and continued regulatory measures to reduce air pollution that contributes to human illness and cli-mate change.
Under the provisions of the Clean Air Act, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is charged with measuring and limiting emissions from vehicles, chemical plants, utilities, power-generating facilities, industrial sites and other polluters. Recent proposals in Congress have sought the temporary suspension of some of the EPA’s authority in order to ease regulatory burdens on corporations, as well as the delay of the agency’s planned revision of ground-level ozone standards.
The original Clean Air Act was drafted by Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine. Substantial amendments in 1990 were adopted under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine.
In Bangor on Tuesday, rheumatologist Geoffrey Gratwick, a member of the Bangor City Council and of the organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, praised the Clean Air Act as a powerful public health tool and “a genuine American success story.”
Through the regulatory interventions of the federal EPA, he said, the incidence of preventable asthma and other respiratory illnesses in adults and children has decreased significantly. In addition to its impact on personal health, Gratwick said, the Clean Air Act has saved an estimated $22 trillion in health care and related costs since its enactment.
Elaine Beaulier, a certified asthma specialist with the Bangor Department of Public Health, noted that asthma rates in children and adults are higher in Maine than the national average, in part due to Maine’s surprisingly poor air quality and its location relative to pollution-producing coal-fired power plants in other states.
“Maine families struggle to identify and control their asthma triggers, but some triggers are not within our control,” she said. She urged Maine’s senators to support the full and ongoing implementation of Clean Air regulations.
In Portland, the coalition was joined by former Maine independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, who helped craft the 1970 act while working for Muskie.
Cutler said during the rally that “it’s critical that Snowe and Collins continue Maine’s legacy of commitment to public health” by voting against proposals to weaken the act.
In a prepared statement released Tuesday afternoon, Snowe said the Clean Air Act “has been a critical force in reducing smog, mercury pollution, acid rain and other hazardous pollutants throughout the country.”
She said she would support efforts to improve and update the law “in a manner that is consistent with economic recovery … and that upholds high standards for protecting the environment and the public’s health and quality of life.”
Collins also released a comment late Tuesday afternoon.
“The Clean Air Act … remains landmark legislation that has helped protect and improve our nation’s air quality and public health for 40 years,” she said, adding that the nation should “continue to build upon Senator Muskie’s remarkable legacy.”
Collins said she supports the development of policies that support green energy jobs, lessen the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.