by Dennis Hoey, staff writer
After being accused by environmental groups, legislative leaders and two potential gubernatorial candidates of not being transparent about a rule change that critics claim could weaken air-quality regulations, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection says it will hold a public hearing on the proposal this fall.
A date and time has not been determined, DEP spokeswoman Jessamine Logan said Tuesday.
The change would exempt new or newly upgraded industrial polluters in Maine from several measures that aim to reduce ground-level ozone in accordance with the federal Clean Air Act. Critics say the change would remove Maine from a 13-state effort to control cross-border ozone pollution, undermining a project that has reduced smog in Maine.
The rule change was advertised last month in the Kennebec Journal and posted on the DEP’s website under a link called “Opportunity for Comment.” Environmental organizations said the posting was so inconspicuous that it went unnoticed until last week.
The deadline for comments was Tuesday. In its published notice of agency rulemaking, the DEP said no public hearing would be held after the comment period. But Logan said at least one person requested a hearing. Federal rules mandate a hearing if anyone requests one.
The DEP stands by its proposal, Logan said. “This (rule change) is an opportunity for economic development in Maine while still maintaining Maine’s high air quality standards,” she said.
The DEP has said that Maine should not have to adhere to the same standards as other areas of the Northeast because all areas of Maine now meet federal ozone standards. The department has also said it should not be held to the same emission standards as states that are contributing to downwind air pollution.
After the public hearing, the DEP will present its proposal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has final say over whether the change is made.
In a letter Tuesday to Gov. Paul LePage, Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves wrote that “this effort to roll back vital protections in Maine’s air pollution plan has serious implications for public health — both for today and for our future. Such a substantial change in Maine policy should be reviewed by the public and the Legislature. It should be done with both ample notice and opportunity to comment.”
Alfond and Eves say Maine cannot expect neighboring states to play by the rules and be accountable if Maine is unwilling to hold itself to the same standards. They ask that action on the rule change be suspended until a public hearing is held.
Eliot Cutler, an independent who has indicated he will run for governor in 2014, posted a statement on his Facebook page asking that the proposed rule change be examined in public.
“Apart from all of the health benefits to which these rules have contributed, we need to take into account the fact that our tourist industry â Maine’s largest business â depends upon clean air and clear skies,” Cutler wrote. “That’s why people come to Maine, and we need to be as sure as we can be that we’re doing the right thing before we put those qualities at risk.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who is exploring a run for governor, issued a statement saying “Governor LePage’s attempt to roll back anti-smog regulations â particularly without even allowing proper input from Mainers â is yet another example of his administration’s misguided environmental priorities. Once again he is putting the best interests of corporate campaign donors ahead of the health and well-being of this state.”