July 17, 2019
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The wildfire haze has made one thing apparent: national air quality protections are important

Hilary Weaver | BDN
Hilary Weaver | BDN
Bryan Wentzell, Conservation Advocacy manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club fills out a visibility data sheet while on the North Ridge trial on Cadillac Mountain. Wentzell was checking ozone levels using a small card indicator and was among a small group hiking the trail to raise awareness of poor air quality in Acadia National Park and all of Maine.

Sunny skies in parts of Maine on Wednesday weren’t as clear as they should have been, thanks to a smoke-fueled haze that traveled here from western Canada.

As reported by the Portland Press Herald, wildfires currently raging on the other side of the continent, coupled with a particular air flow, brought smoke into Maine’s air.

“Sometimes that haze can be pretty thick. The sun is actually blocked out quite a bit,” James Brown, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, told the Press Herald. “As long as the flow remains the same, we’ll continue to get it.”

This airflow, and the smoke it brought with it, is a reminder of why Maine is sometimes referred to as “America’s tailpipe.” Prevailing winds from the west mean Maine is often the recipient of air pollutants from away.

“Environmental pollutants carried by the gulf stream and air patterns lead to high levels of airborne particulate, smog, smoke, and soot,” reads the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention website as part of an explanation of why Maine has some of the highest rates of asthma in the country. The Maine CDC also references high summertime ozone levels, Maine’s dense forest and the resulting high amount of pollen, and the prevalence of wood-burning heat sources as other factors for Maine’s high asthma rates.

Both Brown and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection website downplayed any potential health impacts from this week’s smoke from Canada, noting that it had been remaining aloft in the air.

The DEP, however, ended up downgrading the air quality particle forecast for Wednesday from “good” to “moderate” in the western part of the state. That equates to a “limited health notice” under which “sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion,” according to the agency.

The smoke and this accompanying “limited health notice” aren’t necessarily cause for alarm. But this week’s haze does emphasize that many environmental impacts are not localized or contained to the area where they originate, and why local and state action like we saw in Maine this past legislative session — while encouraging — cannot replace national leadership on issues such as clean air where state lines can be rendered essentially meaningless by the wind.

A recent report from the Associated Press gives us reason to worry about the status of clean air in America. The AP found that there were 15 percent more days in 2018 and 2017 with unhealthy air than the average between 2013 and 2016.

Despite President Donald Trump’s recent overtures about protecting the environment, his administration’s efforts to roll back Obama-era emissions standards and other air quality-related rules are anything but a breath of fresh air from an environmental policy perspective.

Because of the way air pollution moves across our country, America’s clean air victories and challenges are also Maine’s. No matter the action we take here in Maine, outside forces will continue to impact our air quality. That doesn’t mean state action is meaningless or ill-advised — quite the contrary. But it does highlight the need for collective regional, national and even international work on this and other environmental issues.



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