AUGUSTA — Environmental groups and public health advocates squared off against members of the pulp and paper industry Tuesday over a proposal that would exempt Maine from some anti-smog regulations.

The proposal was submitted by the LePage administration through the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. It has received preliminary approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the final arbiter in a request that would limit Maine’s involvement in a 13-state compact designed to curb smog emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Opponents of the waiver say it could reverse a 30-year trend of decreased ground-level ozone, or smog. Smog is a lung irritant that can cause serious breathing problems in the elderly, infirm or very young.

Public health advocates also argued that although Maine has met federal standards for smog since 2004, scientific studies have shown the standards should be higher to protect public health.

Ed Miller, senior vice president of the American Lung Association of the Northeast, said the DEP’s proposal is shortsighted.

“We do not believe that Maine people want to live in the unhealthiest air allowed by law,” Miller said at a public hearing held by the DEP.

The LePage administration’s proposal would end a requirement that new or refitted plants meet the most stringent emission standards, and a separate requirement that plants purchase “offset” credits to compensate for their emissions.

Representatives of the administration and the pulp and paper industry said the proposal makes scientific and economic sense because it would allow mills to convert from oil to natural gas. Industry representatives said the regulations make such conversions too expensive, adding $2 million to the cost.

DEP officials said the state’s mills aren’t contributing to pollution within the 13-state compact area.

Maine is considered the tailpipe of the region, meaning increases in smog or pollution often come from out-of-state sources.

“We’re not jeopardizing environmental protection or weakening environmental protection,” said Dixon Pike, the lobbyist for the Maine Pulp and Paper Association. He said Maine mills could essentially shut down and have no impact on air quality in the region.

Pike also noted that previous administrations have requested waivers, with little controversy. The EPA 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.

Pike argued that the LePage administration request was more scientifically justified than either of those requests.

Environmental groups said the administration request was more sweeping than previous waivers and could jeopardize the 13-state compact that has cut smog-causing emissions in half over the past 30 years. Maine DEP data show 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.

Pete Didisheim, a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the state is essentially removing itself from the regional ozone-control program. He said Maine had the most to gain from the state compact and the most to lose if the waiver prompted other states to pull out.

Health advocates and members of the public also echoed Didisheim’s warning about Maine’s high incidence of asthma.

According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 14 percent to 15 percent of Maine adults in 2010 had been diagnosed with asthma. Between 11 percent and 13.5 percent of Maine children suffered from the respiratory disease. The data showed that some other New England states, such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, had higher asthma rates.

The federal EPA has given preliminary approval for the request, saying in a report that the state has “demonstrated convincingly” that Maine would not contribute to pollution in the compact zone if the waiver were granted.

However, the Obama administration is considering adopting tougher smog standards, which could knock Maine out of compliance.

Opponents of the waiver have also objected on procedural grounds, saying the state’s environmental agency provided little public notice about the proposed change. DEP officials didn’t address that complaint Tuesday, but they defended the request.

“This proposal … is not a wholesale rollback of existing (pollution) control programs,” said Jeff Crawford of the agency’s Bureau of Air Quality.

Bureau Director Marc Cone said previous waiver requests hadn’t increased pollution levels. The latest one, he said, wouldn’t either.

“This proposal is not a race to the bottom as some might profess,” said Cone, who later paraphrased former Gov. King.

“A previous governor, now a senator, once said, ‘Follow the science and let that guide the regulations,'” Cone said. “That’s what we’ve done.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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