June 19, 2018
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Looking through the political smog

File photo of steam billowing from the cooling towers of Vattenfall's Jaenschwalde brown coal power station reflected in the water of a lake near Cottbus, eastern Germany December 2, 2009.

Environmental groups were quick to politicize the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s request to exempt new industrial facilities from certain anti-smog rules. They painted the request as part of an ongoing narrative about the LePage administration’s attempt to undermine longstanding environmental regulations at the behest of corporate clients DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho served when she was a lobbyist.

The reality is more complicated.

The DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality last month solicited public comments on its request to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to exempt new and expanding industrial facilities in Maine from complying with two rules the state must follow as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act.

That landmark federal law, championed by then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, placed Maine in the 13-state Ozone Transport Commission. The intention was to reduce industrial emissions in the region stretching from Virginia to Maine that led to a buildup of ground-level ozone, or smog, throughout the region, but especially in states like Maine that are downwind of states that are home to coal-fired power plants.

As part of the compact, the participating states had to closely regulate the emissions from their industrial facilities. New polluting facilities seeking to come online and others making major upgrades had to purchase emissions credits from facilities no longer in operation, so there would be no net addition of emissions. Those facilities also had to meet the “lowest achievable emission rate” — the most stringent emissions rate possible for a comparable facility.

In the 13-state Ozone Transport Region, Maine is not among the major polluters. But the state is vulnerable to a buildup of smog. It is downwind of major economic centers along the East Coast and states with coal-fired power plants. Maine’s heavily forested nature also contributes to its vulnerability to smog. Trees emit volatile organic compounds, one of smog’s three chemical components. The others are sunlight and nitrogen oxides, a common emission from vehicle exhaust.

While Maine’s pollution largely wasn’t to blame for the region’s smog problems, the state participated in the 13-state compact and held its industrial facilities to the same stringent emissions standards as coal-fired plants in Pennsylvania.

It was a pledge. In exchange for having upwind polluters cut back on their ozone-generating activities and improve Maine’s air quality, Maine would do the same. Others would benefit from Maine’s emissions reductions, like Canada’s Maritime provinces, which are downwind of the Pine Tree State.

Air quality has improved since the agreement took effect. Ground-level ozone levels are lower. Maine DEP data show the state’s polluters are emitting fewer nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.

Now, the LePage administration is seeking to exempt new and expanding industrial facilities from the requirements that they purchase offset emissions credits from defunct facilities and meet the lowest achievable emission rate. In the past, the Baldacci and King administrations requested and received limited waivers from these requirements when different industries made the case that they would have caused an undue burden. The LePage administration’s request would amount to a blanket waiver.

Environmental groups were quick to pounce on the request. Not only was the LePage administration trying to undermine the 13-state Ozone Transport Region partnership, they said, but it was trying to do so in secret.

The Maine DEP placed the request for public comments on its website, but not in an especially prominent spot, and the agency purchased just one newspaper legal ad announcing the change.

The Maine DEP should have been more public with its intentions.

The agency has a legitimate case to make that it’s trying to eliminate one industrial barrier for businesses seeking to modify their Maine facilities or expand into Maine with limited environmental effect.

Maine — and, by extension, its industrial facilities — currently meets federal emissions standards, and officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are preliminarily on board with the LePage administration’s request. If Maine violated emissions standards after being granted the exemptions it’s seeking, those waivers would lapse.

As a result, the state would have a vested interest in continuing to reduce emissions levels, especially because emission standards are likely to only become more stringent.

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