Clearing Up Maine's Air-Quality Failure
May 06, 2009 -
PORTLAND -- Maine's reputation for clean, crisp air took a hit this week when the American Lung Association sent home its annual state-by-state report cards on air quality.
Seven out of the 10 Maine counties that received grades this year got either a D or an F for ozone pollution, which irritates and damages the lungs, especially in children, the elderly and people with respiratory conditions. The underachievers include Cumberland and Androscoggin counties (D) and York County (F).
Ouch. Two years ago, we practically made the honor roll. Cumberland County even got an A.
And the painful grades came days after Maine's first official high-ozone alerts of the year.
Ozone – which is created when industrial pollution and car exhaust combine with heat and sunlight – reached moderate levels around the state last Saturday and Tuesday, and nearly hit unhealthy levels at Acadia National Park on Tuesday.
The lung association did give Maine a small measure of praise. It ranked the Portland area and other regions among the least likely places in the country to experience spikes of particle pollution, which includes floating bits of everything from chimney smoke to car exhaust.
And Maine can take pride in Oxford and Penobscot counties, which received two of a handful of Bs given out for ozone levels on the entire East Coast.
The lung association's ozone grades are based on federal health standards, and there is no escaping the fact that Maine's air has a lot of room for improvement.
By themselves, however, the grades are incomplete, if not misleading. In fact, Maine's air has been getting cleaner for the last 20 years.
"The air is certainly much cleaner than it has been. The grades are worse because the standard (for pollution) is lower," said Martha Webster, meteorologist for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened up the nation's ozone pollution standard last year based on growing evidence that it takes much less ozone to damage lungs and shorten lives than previously believed.
The new federal standard turned a B into a D and explains the big drop in the lung association's marks. But it doesn't make an F any less a failure.
In fact, the poor grades are a strong sign that southern and coastal Maine will be reclassified by the federal government as being in violation of its new ozone pollution standard. That report card, which will depend in part on how much pollution we experience this summer, is expected next spring and will come with real consequences.
If parts of the state are found to be in non-attainment – the federal version of an F – Maine will have to come up with regulations to reduce ozone-related pollution in those areas. The last time Maine was in non-attainment for ozone, new development projects faced added restrictions and costs, for example.
But even that likelihood isn't all bad news.
If the air pollution rules tighten up for southern and coastal Maine, they'll tighten up even more for Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Power plants and other industry in upwind states such as those are the primary sources of Maine's ozone pollution.
The potential benefits for Maine's air and public health are so appealing that DEP Commissioner David Littell and other state officials have actually urged the EPA to lower its standard for ozone pollution even further. It's about the air, not the grades, they say.
Now that there is a new administration in Washington, state officials may get the tougher standards they want. If that happens, Maine might find itself getting almost as many Fs as states like Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey.
But, they say, we'll be breathing easier just the same.
JOHN RICHARDSON, Portland Press Herald, May 2, 2009
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