SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s maple syrup industry could be gone in 50 years, and the state’s commercial shellfishing industry could be wiped out in two.
Those were some of the dire consequences in Maine of ever-growing carbon pollution by out-of-state coal-fired power plants, according to a South Portland panel Thursday that included a doctor, lobsterman, clamming industry representative, hospitality worker and two former state lawmakers.
The event at Southern Maine Community College was hosted by environmental advocacy groups Environment Maine, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Sierra Club Maine and Maine Conservation Voters.
The forum sought to raise awareness of new carbon pollution limits proposed for new power plants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September, as well as a slate of additional limits on existing plants to be released next June.
The EPA is still accepting public comments on the updated Clean Air Act standards, and Glen Brand of Sierra Club Maine urged those in attendance Thursday to write in support of the proposed caps, which prevent emissions from new power plants from exceeding 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour.
Typical coal plants currently emit more than 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour. Emissions from coal-fired power plants, predominantly in the American South and Midwest, has a disproportionate effect on the Northeast region, environmental advocates say, because of the country’s natural air currents that effectively place Maine — as U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, once said — “at the end of our nation’s air pollution tailpipe.”
The United States has limits in place on how much arsenic, mercury and lead pollution power plants can emit, but September’s proposed caps represent the first such restrictions on carbon pollution.
And although Brand said the proposed limits represent an important step, he admitted they may be too little, too late to prevent some of the catastrophic changes already coming down the pipeline in Maine.
“If they can tackle 40 percent of the problem in the U.S., it’s extremely significant,” Brand said. “These standards will not solve the climate change problem, but they represent a beginning.”
Scott Cowger, former state lawmaker and co-owner of the Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell, said plants and animals more accustomed to cold weather will continue to shift their geographic ranges north as Maine stays warmer longer.
“Studies have come out showing that we’re going to lose our sugar maple trees over the next 50 years as they start to go north,” Cowger said, noting the potential loss of taps and fall leaf peeper traffic alike. “That’s going to hurt our tourism industry, as well as our maple syrup industry, of course.”
Maine’s maple syrup production is worth approximately $12 million per year.
The five-decade time frame to lose sugar maples seemed epic when compared to the trouble seen on the immediate horizon by Sara Randall of the Maine Clammers Association. Randall said populations of an invasive species of green crab are exploding off the Maine coast because winters are no longer regularly cold enough to drive them away.
The invasive crabs eat young clams and are now wiping the valuable shellfish out at an alarming rate, she said.
“Within one to two years, we’re looking at not having a commercial shellfish industry in the state of Maine,” Randall said. The state’s commercial shellfish industry is estimated to be worth $60 million annually.
Dr. Tony Owens, an emergency room physician at Maine Medical Center in Portland, said during the forum discussion Thursday that air pollution is driving up rates of respiratory ailments.
“In 20 years, incidents of asthma have quadrupled,” Owens said, adding that the increase has “closely mirrored” rises in pollution rates, and one out of every eight Mainers now has asthma.
According to the Obama administration, there were nearly 1,000 hospital admissions for asthma in 2011, with an average charge of more than $11,000 for each stay.
“We have a moral obligation in stopping the exponential growth of carbon emissions,” Owens said.
Other speakers Thursday included former state lawmaker and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, David Clay of Mechanical Services Inc. and Peter McAleney of New Meadows Lobster.