WASHINGTON — Emissions of pollutants that cause smog in Maine have been cut in half over the past 30 years, a fact that experts attribute in part to a multistate collaboration that has dramatically improved air quality throughout the Northeast.

Now, a request by the LePage administration to exempt Maine from some anti-smog regulations has reignited debate over air quality in Maine and whether federal standards for ozone adequately protect public health.

Scientists, government officials and health organizations appear to agree that air quality in Maine and the rest of the region has improved markedly in recent decades. Since 2004, Maine has met federal standards for ground-level ozone – smog – a lung irritant that can cause serious breathing problems in the elderly, infirm or very young.

Data from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection shows that the primary components of ground-level ozone – nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds – have dropped since 1990, the year the 13-state Ozone Transport Region was established under the federal Clean Air Act.

Annual emissions of nitrogen oxides from factories and other “stationary sources” declined 56.6 percent – from 30,700 tons to 13,328 tons – from 1990 to 2011. Emissions of volatile organic compounds fell 62.5 percent in that period, from 9,183 tons a year to 3,446 tons.

Cars, trucks and other “mobile sources” pumped 32,274 tons of nitrogen oxides and 36,482 tons of volatile organic compounds into Maine’s atmosphere in 2011, according to the DEP.

A comparable figure for 1990 was not available Friday, but mobile source emissions nationwide have dropped significantly under increasingly stringent auto emissions standards.

AIR QUALITY IMPROVED

Standards imposed on power plants a decade ago and less-polluting vehicles are key factors in the Northeast’s improved air quality, said Russell Dickerson, a professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science.

Much of Maine’s smog-causing pollution blows in from the “megalopolis” stretching from Washington, D.C., to Boston, and from coal-fired power plants in other states. So the Ozone Transport Region has played a major role in reducing emissions that cause smog in Maine, Dickerson said.

The American Lung Association of the Northeast and other health and environmental groups are upset at the LePage administration’s recent application to exempt new or upgraded industrial facilities from key provisions of the Ozone Transport Region’s regulations.

“What we have here is a false sense of security that the air quality is OK, and that concerns us,” said Ed Miller, the lung association’s senior vice president.

In its request to federal regulators, the DEP says Maine is meeting federal standards for ground-level ozone and is not contributing to smog in other states, so industries in Maine shouldn’t have to buy “offset” credits for emissions or meet the most stringent emissions rates.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has drafted a preliminary approval of the request but will soon begin accepting public comment on the recommendation.

Maine appears to meet all of the technical criteria for a waiver from the Ozone Transport Region requirements, said Dave Conroy, chief of the Air Programs Branch for the EPA’s New England region.

Even with a waiver, Conroy said, facilities would need state-of-the-art technology to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.

“The permitting requirements in place assume that the air quality does not degrade in areas that are currently meeting air quality standards,” Conroy said. “To get a permit, facilities are going to have to go through the process and demonstrate they are not going to cause air violations.”

MORE LIMITED WAIVERS

This is not the first time Maine has sought such an exemption from the EPA. The agency granted Maine more limited waivers for nitrogen oxides emissions in northern Maine in 2006, during the administration of Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, and in the mid-1990s, during the administration of independent Gov. Angus King.

Neither request generated significant controversy. Only two organizations submitted comments to the EPA during the process in 2006.

Marc Cone, director of the DEP’s Air Quality Bureau, noted that air quality in Maine continued to improve even with the waivers. He said, “We continue to get better emissions levels because we have very well-controlled sources.”

But the LePage administration’s more sweeping waiver request is proving much more contentious.

“What is being proposed by the DEP now is far beyond anything that has been requested previously,” said Pete Didisheim, senior director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

By requesting statewide waivers for volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, Didisheim said, Maine is essentially removing itself from the regional ozone-control program.

“The idea that we would pull the plug is completely missing the point of what the (Ozone Transport Region) was intended to do, and that is as a big group of states we should move under the same set of rules for clean air,” Didisheim said.

DEBATE COULD BE MOOT

The debate in Maine could be moot if the Obama administration hands down tougher health standards for ground-level ozone.

In 2008, the Bush administration lowered the health standard for ground-level ozone from 80 to 75 parts per billion. That standard is used in a complicated formula to determine whether regions are in compliance with the federal standard. Public health organizations argued that 75 parts per billion is too high, and sued the Bush administration in federal court under the Clean Air Act.

In 2010, the EPA proposed lowering the standard further, to 60 to 70 parts per billion, a level that health organizations have said is much more protective of public health. A year later, President Obama rejected the proposed lower standard. Health groups then renewed their lawsuit.

There are reports that the EPA may impose more stringent standards in 2014. If that happens, areas of Maine that now meet the federal standard may become non-compliant, said Miller with the American Lung Association.

“The fact that Maine is ‘in attainment’ for ozone is only because the ozone standard isn’t set where it should be,” Miller said.

The DEP’s Cone acknowledged that under the Clean Air Act, any waivers from the Ozone Transport Region requirements would be null if Maine were to fall out of compliance. But Cone said it is premature to speculate how Maine’s status would be affected until new standards are implemented.

“We continue to see that downward trend” in emissions, Cone said. “We expect it will continue to go down.” 

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: [email protected]