AUGUSTA, Maine — Opposition is mounting to Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to limit Maine’s role in a 13-state initiative designed to curb the production of smog under the federal Clean Air Act.
Numerous environmental groups and legislative Democrats weighed in against the proposal on Tuesday, with lawmakers calling it a “race to the bottom that would put polluters ahead of the public health and our air quality.” The LePage administration argues that the changes would promote economic development and exempt the state from prevention mandates for a problem it isn’t causing.
A 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act placed Maine in what is called an Ozone Transport Region. Among other things, it means that new or expanding businesses that release smog-producing gases into Maine air must purchase credits from entities — such as shuttered factories — within the cooperative’s other 12 states in an effort to control levels of smog-producing nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds on a regional scale. The program is similar to but separate from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
The LePage administration argues that because Maine has stayed below the program’s thresholds for both air quality and the creation of smog-producing pollutants that affect neighboring states since 2004, the state shouldn’t be required to participate in the credit swap program.
Marc Cone, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Air Quality, said it is a question of equity for Maine.
“These provisions are antiquated and don’t really have a whole lot of impact on environmental protection for this state,” said Cone. “We don’t impact our own ozone levels and we don’t impact the levels of ozone in other parts of the Ozone Transport Region. We’re trying to make that antiquated regulation change to make more environmental sense.”
Cone said Maine received similar waivers from the EPA under the King and Baldacci administrations for nitrogen oxides — which are harmful gases produced when oil, gas or coal are burned — and that the state is seeking to add volatile organic compounds to this waiver request. Volatile organic compounds are harmful gases that dissipate from certain solids and liquids, such as paints, cleaning supplies, glues, adhesives and some fuels, including those made from waste vegetable oil.
“This does not get companies out of emissions controls,” said Cone. “The control requirements are still part of the process to get a license for anybody growing or expanding.”
Cone said there have been examples of companies expanding in Maine — such as Louisiana-Pacific’s expansion of a building material plant in New Limerick — in which the company purchased ozone credits that far exceeded what the plant actually produced in pollutants. Though the price of those credits is confidential, Cone said the purchase could have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“When it was all said and done they bought credits that they didn’t need at all,” said Cone. “Our emission levels are significantly lower than the rest of the other states [in the cooperative]. … The science shows that this is not going to have an impact environmentally. The science is strong and we stand behind it.”
Some of Maine’s environmental groups oppose the waiver. Emily Figdor, director of a Portland-based organization called Environment Maine, said the administration’s rationale for the change isn’t logical and would reverse years of progress.
“What the administration is proposing to do is roll back the critical standard that protects Maine people from smog pollution,” said Figdor. “The science between breathing smog and having serious health impacts is very strong. We need to make more progress on reducing air pollution, not potentially erode the progress we’ve already made.”
According to the American Lung Association’s 2013 county-by-county “State of the Air” report card, Maine has mixed air quality results. While some counties, such as Androscoggin and Aroostook, received A grades, there were four counties that received C’s or D’s: Cumberland, Hancock, Knox and York.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine was among numerous groups and individuals who have requested a formal public hearing on the proposed changes.
“This proposal raises major issues regarding Maine’s involvement in regional efforts to regulate air pollution,” wrote Pete Didisheim, the group’s advocacy director, in written testimony to the department. “Maine is at the receiving end of upwind pollution sources, many of which have been required to reduce emissions through requirements established for OTR states. Maine has long held the appropriate position that we need ‘clean hands’ when it comes to calling on upwind states to reduce air pollution that can cause public health threats for Maine people.”
Democratic legislative leaders also weighed in against the proposal. Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves sent a letter of protest to LePage on Tuesday afternoon. They argued that the DEP hasn’t been transparent about the process, though the DEP argues that notice was published last month in the Kennebec Journal and also on a state website.
“Your proposals to lift these public health and environmental standards would allow polluters in Maine to meet the lowest possible emission rate requirements, breaking with our long-held agreement with 12 other regional partners that has effectively reduced smog in the Northeast,” wrote Eves and Alfond. “The agreement, part of revisions to the Clean Air Act, passed by Congress in 1990, has been a successful partnership to improve air quality in Maine and throughout the region. How can we expect our neighboring states to play by the rules and be accountable if we are unwilling to hold ourselves to the same standards?”
The Democratic chairmen of the Legislature’s Environmental and Natural Resources Committee also reacted with dismay in written statements.
“As a small-business owner, I am very supportive of business, but we should proceed with care,” said Sen. Jim Boyle, D-Gorham, who is co-chairman of the committee. “The fact is, for decades, we have all been in this together fighting the harmful effects of smog and making our air healthier and breathable. Loosening compliance on smog regulation is harmful to our health and could hurt businesses that rely on Maine tourism.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, just hours before the deadline to submit comments on the proposed changes, the DEP had received a total of 37 written comments, many of which urged a public hearing on the issues. Jessamine Logan, spokeswoman for the DEP, said in response to those requests, a public hearing will be held sometime this fall but that it hasn’t been scheduled yet.
Cone said if the federal EPA approves the changes, the DEP can rewrite its own internal regulations without legislative approval.