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In Portland, EPA official touts regulations that he says will save lives and money

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Curt Spalding, Federal EPA Region 1 Administrator, talks about clean air and global warming in Portland Thursday, May 17, 2012.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — New England’s top federal environmental official told a Portland crowd Thursday that one of the new air quality regulations being proposed will prevent as many as 300 premature deaths and save as much as $2.5 billion in health care costs annually.

And that’s just in New England.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 1 head Curt Spalding led a Natural Resources Council of Maine panel discussion on new Obama Administration pollution guidelines Thursday morning at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

Spalding was one of 12 who spoke at the forum, which aimed to capture perspectives on global warming from a variety of sources. Speakers included those with religious, business, science, legal, medical and outdoor recreation backgrounds.

The event aimed to highlight proposed nationwide carbon pollution standards for new power plants, which would, in part, cap carbon dioxide emissions at 1,000 pounds per megawatt produced.

The average coal plant now emits nearly 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt produced.

Spalding also touched on the EPA’s recently approved Mercury Air Toxics and Cross-State Air Pollution rules, which build upon the federal Clean Air Act to further drive down the amount of allowable acid and greenhouse gases that can be emitted by some of the country’s top polluting power plants and industries.

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, according to EPA documents, seeks to reduce power plant sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent by 2014 — versus 2005 levels — and nitrogen oxides emissions by 54 percent.

Spalding said the Mercury Air Toxics Rule, which will force the roughly 40 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants that haven’t already done so to install pollution control technology, will prevent between 120 and 300 premature deaths in New England per year and save between $1 billion and $2.5 billion in annual medical costs in the region.

He said air polluted by power plants and industries, largely in the American South and Midwest, causes or exacerbates respiratory ailments and takes a heavy toll in health care dollars and human lives.

In the last year, Spalding said, bad air was the cause of 160,000 premature deaths nationwide and 13 million lost work days.

But the statistical effect of air pollution wasn’t the only thing on display during Thursday’s forum.

Fayette forester and logger Harry Dwyer said he wasn’t surprised when he saw a news report that Maine had eight straight months of above-average temperatures. He said he saw the evidence of global warming while waiting for the ground to freeze so he could move logs, or while delayed by wet weather and heavy muds, or while picking deer ticks off his legs for “hours” after emerging from the woods.

“It’s not just warmer,” Dwyer said. “Things are different now. The weather is much less stable. We go from periods of drought to something like monsoon seasons.”

He said in order to see climate change from the point of view of a forest worker, “tear your paycheck up and throw it away … every time it rains two or three or four days in a week. See how long it takes for you to realize things are different today.”

Stephen Mulkey, president of Unity College, said if warming trends are not slowed, the planet will see a 10-degree Fahrenheit average temperature increase by 2100. Such a change, he warned, would drive maple trees and their sugaring operations nearly out of the continental United States.

“There’s no reason we can’t be fossil fuel free by the middle of this century,” Mulkey said. “We have the technology and the economic mechanisms to make that happen. Challenges to this [goal] are social and political, because we have the technology and the economy.”

Speakers Thursday also included former Maine Attorney General Steve Rowe, emergency room physician Tony Owens, Portland City Councilor David Marshall, Kennebunkport hotelier Jestena Boughton, Hall-Dall High School student and avid fly fisherman Sam Day and others.

“I get quite angry when these types of rules are talked about purely in political or financial terms,” said the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Belfast, during the forum, “because this is about life. … It is a profoundly moral issue and one for which we are all accountable.”

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