Governor Paul LePage
Governor Paul LePage
Maine Department of Environmental Protection will hold a public hearing on a proposal to allow businesses to emit more chemicals that cause ozone pollution on Monday, July 30, at 1 p.m. in its Response Training Room in Augusta.

Gov. LePage has directed the DEP to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to allow most of Maine to withdraw from the Ozone Transport Region (OTR), which would permit new industrial projects to be exempt from having to purchase credits to offset ozone emissions. The petition exempts Acadia National Park and 10 coastal towns in York County. The deadline for comments is August 10.

The OTR, which was created in 1990 by an amendment to the Clean Air Act, designated Maine along with 11 other states and the District of Columbia as an “ozone nonattainment area.” The policy requires industry to adopt technology to lower emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that cause ozone pollution. The amendment also mandates that companies building new facilities or modifying existing plants meet strict air quality standards and purchase emission offsets.

According to the EPA, ground-level ozone is particularly harmful to children, older adults and people with lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Maine has some of the highest rates of asthma in the country — 11.7 percent of Maine adults have the disease compared to 8.9 percent nationally, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. On its website, Maine CDC says it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of Maine’s high asthma rates, but a contributing factor is likely Maine’s geographic designation as the “tailpipe of America,” as air patterns carry pollutants from other parts of the country to the state. The Obama administration’s EPA previously granted the LePage administration an exemption from certain NOx pollution regulations.

In its petition, Maine DEP argues that while parts of southern Maine were out of compliance with ozone regulations when the OTR was formed 25 years ago, the state has been in compliance with national ozone standards since 2007. It maintains that granting the petition “will not degrade the air quality in Maine or in any other state.”

“The proposed action would enable DEP to limit areas of the state where new OTR emission controls might be required in the future, and to enable Maine facilities to do capital improvement projects without needing to purchase emission offsets,” the DEP stated. “Such projects would still be required to use the best available control technology to limit emissions to the greatest extent practicable. DEP will not rescind any existing emission control requirements that have been adopted because the state is in the OTR.”

The agency argues that the OTR regulations “discourage economic investment” and withdrawing from it will help wood processing facilities in Maine that compete with mills in other states.

But Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that while the DEP can make an argument that the move won’t cause the state to go out of attainment with ozone standards, it’s “completely false” to say that lifting ozone pollution regulations won’t degrade the air quality. He said that the OTR “recognizes the common fate” states have regarding pollution that blows across state lines and for Maine to pull out would send a message to other states that Maine doesn’t take ozone pollution seriously.

“It reduces our leverage to other states if we’re not willing to do the same things to make sure that our air stays clean,” said Voorhees. “I think it’s a problematic perspective that flies in the face of regional cooperation. It’s also a bad time to do that when you have the Trump administration attempting to roll back lots of pollution standards that affect our air quality.”

Last year, the Trump administration repealed the Clean Power Plan, which had put stronger limits on emissions from fossil-fuel power plants. Trump’s EPA has also exempted a number of facilities from pollution controls, attempted to roll back emission standards on oil and gas production, proposed slashing funding for the Clean Air Act, and is seeking to revoke California’s authority to regulate car emissions. Last October, the EPA denied a petition from the rest of New England and four other states requesting that it expand the OTR to add Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and parts of Virginia, alleging that these states significantly contribute to smog pollution in downwind states. In December, eight of those states filed an appeal to the EPA’s decision. According to the American Lung Association, 41 percent of Americans live in counties that have unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution.