The Universal Notebook: Let’s not get smug about smog

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Maine air is not as healthy as a lot of people would like to believe. Just because we don’t have a visible haze of pollution hanging over us all the time does not mean we are breathing clean air. We aren’t.

In terms of ozone, the smog created when emissions particles are exposed to sunlight, Cumberland County received a grade of C in the American Lung Association 2013 State of the Air report. The Portland-Lewiston-South Portland metro area ranked in the top 100 of the most polluted urban areas in the country in terms of ozone, 92nd out of 239 metro areas. Our region also ranked 112 out of 235 metro areas for short-term particle pollution and 183 out of 220 for annual particle pollution.

So it’s what we don’t see that’s making us hack, couch, wheeze and sneeze.

Edward Miller, senior vice president for public policy of the American Lung Association of the Northeast, speaking at a Maine Department of Environmental Protection hearing in September on a proposal to loosen smog regulations in Maine, told regulators that “in some areas of the state the ozone air pollution levels are as high as possible without triggering EPA non-attainment under the current and inadequate 75 ppb ozone standard. We do not believe Maine people want to live in the unhealthiest environment allowed by law.”

Smog has been in the news lately, because the Maine DEP is asking that Maine factories be exempt from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements to purchase offsets in order to discharge additional volatile organic compounds into the air. Offsets have always struck me as a suspect method of reducing pollution at best: If someone else stops polluting, then you can purchase credits from them and then start polluting yourself.

Maine pulp and paper industry officials complain that offset requirements add millions to the cost of new construction and keep mills from expanding. Having grown up in the shadow of the S.D. Warren smokestack in Westbrook, where you could see, smell and even feel the air pollution, I’m not sure we want paper mills expanding. We used to put up with the toxic, noxious pollution from paper mills because we didn’t know any better and because they provided thousands of good jobs. Now we know better, and they don’t.

As Maine flirts with loosening pollution standards, we should all be concerned that ozone standards to begin with are inadequate to protect our health. The current standard is 75 parts per billion for ozone, but recent science suggests the standard for human health should be 60 to 70 ppb. This summer there would have been 12 unhealthy air days atop Cadillac Mountain if the proposal 60-70 ppb standard had been in effect. There were only two under the 75 ppb standard. Acadia National Park: beautiful views, lousy air.

Delaware and New York officials from the Ozone Transport Zone that includes Maine, Maine environmental groups, the American Lung Association and other health-care organizations have lined up in opposition to the DEP’s request for an offset waiver, but the federal EPA actually seems to approve. The DEP proposes and the EPA endorses. Shouldn’t that be good enough for Maine people? No way.

For one thing, the LePage administration has no credibility when it comes to environmental protection, having put Patricia Aho, a lobbyist for industrial polluters, in charge of the DEP. Then, too, the LePage DEP tried to slip the waiver request under the radar by failing to provide proper public notice.

Maine air used to be really bad, both because of all the paper mills and because Maine is at the end of the industrial tailpipe where the prevailing winds bring pollution in from the west. Since the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 that created the Ozone Transport Region, our air has improved markedly. But it still has a way to go. Now is not the time to start backsliding on air quality. In fact, there never will be a good time to start backsliding on environmental protection.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.