The resistance could make it hard to get the EPA to ease what the state views as obstacles to economic growth.
by Colin Woodard, staff writer
AUGUSTA — Delaware and New York are opposing Maine’s proposal to loosen its anti-smog regulations, claiming it violates federal law and undermines efforts to reduce ozone and other air pollution in eastern states.
The two states’ opposition – detailed in letters to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – creates new headwinds for Maine’s proposal, which aims to remove what state and industry officials say are obstacles to economic growth that do nothing to improve air quality. The changes, drafted with help from the EPA, need approval from the agency, which will likely make a ruling by year’s end.
“At a time when we should be focused on improving air quality and having consistent standards across all the states that contribute to our air quality problems, we believe this is a step in the wrong direction,” Collin O’Mara, head of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, told the Portland Press Herald.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation agreed.
“We oppose this action because there are errors in the analysis that Maine relied upon to draw the conclusion that this action would not affect air quality in other states,” said department spokeswoman Lisa King. “States in the Northeast, and particularly New York state, need emissions reductions from all of the states contributing to their air quality concerns to meet federal air quality standards.”
In comments submitted to the EPA before an Oct. 3 deadline, environmental groups and the professional associations representing Maine’s physicians, osteopathic physicians and public health professionals also opposed the state’s proposal. Many comments have not been posted on the EPA’s website yet because of the federal shutdown that ended last week, but several people said they believe that Delaware and New York are the only states that submitted comments.
Massachusetts, the state most likely to be affected by emissions from Maine, did not submit comments, said Edmund Coletta, a spokesman for the Massachusetts DEP. Officials in Maryland, Connecticut and the EPA’s regional office in Boston did not respond to phone calls.
MAINE’S CASE FOR DUMPING RULES
The Maine DEP has asked the EPA to allow it to exempt major 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. The paper industry backs the change, saying it will remove a barrier to major investments in Maine paper mills, including conversions and upgrades that will actually improve air quality. Wood pellet manufacturers also have expressed support.
“We’re not anticipating higher levels of ozone in our state due to these changes – or in other states,” said Marc Cone, director of the DEP’s Air Bureau. “If we can eliminate some of these hurdles that don’t necessarily create any air quality improvements, then these investments can create cleaner mills and projects.”
Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is specifically seeking to eliminate a requirement that industrial companies buy offsets for any additional volatile organic compounds created by new plants or major refits. The paper industry says such offsets – purchased from out-of-state companies that have closed or retrofitted plants that produce volatile organic compounds – can add as much as $2 million to the cost of converting a mill from oil to cleaner natural gas, which several want to do.
The DEP is also seeking to remove requirements that new and newly refurbished plants install the strictest technologies for controlling volatile organic compounds, noting that in many situations those are not the best technologies to achieve overall environmental improvements, like reducing particulate or sulfur dioxide emissions.
“You want to be able to look at things in the total environmental equation,” Cone said. “These rules don’t always let you do that.”
State Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, the ranking Republican on the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said the rules are unnecessary and have undermined efforts to bring new sawmill and paper mill investments to the state.
“This is just one more hurdle to take out of the way that gives our state a chance to grow,” said Saviello, who has been an environmental compliance officer at Maine paper mills. “If a mill wants to expand, we want them to do that while protecting air quality in every way. But give us meaningful regulations.”
OTHER STATES FIGHT PROPOSAL
Critics have said the changes would effectively remove Maine from a regional alliance to control cross-border ozone pollution in 12 states and the District of Columbia that has reduced smog blowing into Maine from other states.
The requirements that the LePage administration is seeking to lift are followed by all 13 governments in the Ozone Transport Region, created under the Clean Air Act in the early 1990s. The entity has been credited for ending finger-pointing and blame-shifting among Northeast states, but there has been increasing tension among them and states in the South and Midwest, which emit smog precursors to the region but refuse to join the alliance with its stricter air pollution standards.
In May, eight members of the Ozone Transport Region sent letters to Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia asking them to join the regional group. Maine did not sign the letter.
None of the states accepted the invitation, which was also extended to Virginia, which is a member of the region only for the part of the state within the Washington, D.C., metro area.
The eight eastern states – including Delaware and New York – are frustrated because they have no control over smog that comes from beyond the Ozone Transport Region but they are held accountable by the EPA for its effects. Delaware has found it effectively impossible to meet EPA ozone requirements because the air floating into the state is so polluted.
Maryland – which estimates that 70 percent of its problem blows in from outside the region – earlier this year hinted at legal action to force the EPA to impose stricter pollution targets on southern and Midwestern neighbors, according to The Capital newspaper in Annapolis.
In that context, Maine’s attempt to break ranks with the rest of the Ozone Transport Region has been seen as undermining the regional effort. In its letter to the EPA, Delaware noted that Maine is not alone in dealing with imported smog and said the EPA should address it by forcing other states to join the regional body rather than allowing Maine to leave it.
Delaware and New York are also taking issue with Maine’s claim that smog emissions here don’t affect the ability of any other states in the Ozone Transport Region to meet their air quality standards. Both noted that models show a small but significant amount of smog emissions go to Cape Cod, which has missed its smog targets in two of the past three years, both by an amount so small that Maine’s emissions might have been decisive.
Both states also wrote that, under the Clean Air Act, Maine must show that the changes would make air quality better, which they said the state has not done. Delaware noted that although Maine has low emissions, half of the members of the region have nitrogen oxide emission levels less than Maine’s: Connecticut, Delaware, Washington, D.C., New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
Both states wrote that Maine’s move is unwise because the EPA is expected to further tighten smog requirements, likely pushing some Maine counties into non-attainment.
A TOP PRIORITY FOR MAINE
Cone stood by his department’s models and estimates, and said that in conversations with his counterparts in the region, several said Maine’s move might actually help encourage other states to join the Ozone Transport Region.
“A lot of states are kind of scared to join … but might not be if there was this opportunity for them to recognize that there is flexibility for some of its provisions, and that everything isn’t going to be crammed down their throat,” he said.
Saviello said he takes a dim view of other member states’ complaints, given that many do not have air control regulations as strict as Maine’s.
“If those states had as restrictive air requirements as Maine does, maybe they wouldn’t have these problems,” he said. “They say we should ‘keep in the brotherhood,’ but while we do that, this state is dying.” Documents reviewed by the Press Herald through a public records request show the changes were made a top priority in the DEP Air Bureau’s 2013 work plan, after a company that was considering creating a wood pellet facility in Woodland expressed concerns about the cost of offsets it would have to buy for volatile organic compounds. Once the rules were proposed, paper companies appear to have taken a close interest.
When word came July 20 that the proposal had passed an important administrative hurdle at the EPA, Cone let paper industry lobbyist Dixon Pike of Pierce Atwood know within hours. The rule change itself had been inconspicuously posted on the department’s website, and environmental groups and the general public didn’t learn of its existence until it was reported in the Press Herald on July 29.
The records also show that in August, DEP officials sought to find out if Maine ozone emissions adversely affect downwind neighbors in Canada, and produced evidence that they do not.