Geography, Energy Needs Fuel Air Pollutin Debate

Maine has the highest asthma rate in the nation and asthma is aggravated by ground-level ozone pollution

Published: 30-Jan-2004

BRUNSWICK - Maine's location as the easternmost state puts it in a position that Conrad Schneider calls "the end of the tail pipe."

The advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force in Brunswick means that the state lies in the path of air currents carrying pollution from other parts of the country — primarily from coal-burning energy and manufacturing plants in the Midwest. Hence, Maine pays for environmental sins committed in states to our west. The negative effects of air pollution on the health of Maine's residents and the state of its environment — and the tourism and natural resources economies that rely on it — can be blamed in large part on the failure of the federal government and Midwestern states to control pollutants emitted by power plants and factories in Ohio, New York and other upwind states, according to Schneider. The exhaust from those engines of industry ends up in Maine.

But, maintaining Schneider's tail pipe metaphor, like the engine of a vehicle those states also provide the power that makes Maine run. Some of the plants that pollute Maine's air also provide electricity to the state.

For residential and nonresidential power service, Central Maine Power Co. customers get roughly 15 percent of their power supply from coal-burning facilities out of state. The 15 percent comes from what is referred to as "the New England mix" from Constellation Power Source Maine LLC.

The information about the sources of electricity comes from the Maine Public Utilities Commission's Web site, www.state.me.us/mpuc/electric%20restructuring/disclosure_labels.htm.

Since March 2000, CMP has not been involved in the energy supply business, said spokeswoman Gail Rice. The company got out of the power supply business, as required by state law, she said.

Energy sources CMP instead relies on Constellation Power Source. The Maryland-based company has electrical plants throughout the nation, including in the states that Schneider pinpoints as causes of Maine's air pollution.

Other sources for CMP customers' power supply include the following: nuclear power, 27 percent; natural gas-burning power plants, about 29 percent; oil-burning power plants, about 14 percent; hydroelectric power, 10 percent; and biomass-burning and municipal waste incinerators, about 5 percent.

"Biomass" refers to materials such as waste wood that can be burned to generate electricity.

In the United States as a whole, 50 percent of all electrical power comes from coal-fired power plants, Schneider said.

Coal-fired plants are found in the Midwest, the Southeast and interior western states, such as Colorado and Wyoming, he said. Both New Hampshire and Massachusetts have coal-fired power plants as well, said Jeffrey Crawford, an environmental specialist for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Health risks

Many power plants in the United States also rely on coal to produce electricity, and the burning of coal gives off sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the air create acid rain and regional haze, which cuts down on visibility, according to Crawford. They also emit into the air fine particulates, which can be breathed deeply into the lungs and can aggravate respiratory problems.

Acid rain formed from emissions of coal-fired plants acidifies water and can kill fish in lakes and ponds. Acid rain acidifies soil as well and gradually kills off spruce fir forests in Maine.

"Maine has the highest asthma rate in the nation and asthma is aggravated by ground-level ozone pollution," said Jerry Reid, assistant attorney general for the Maine Attorney General's Office in Augusta. What concerns Reid is that Maine lies in the paths of emissions such as ozone from coal-fired power plants in the southern and western United States.

"It will continue to worsen if the problem is not addressed," he said.

Nitrogen oxides are also a contributor of ozone that can make air more difficult to breathe.

Mercury can impair brain function in children and can be passed from pregnant mothers to fetuses, Schneider said. Mercury also settles into bodies of water through rain and fog. In Maine, that process has created a presence of mercury in rivers, including the Kennebec and Androscoggin, that for years has led state health officials to urge people to limit drastically or avoid eating fish from those bodies of water. Unhealthy levels of mercury in Maine's river fish also impact the food chain, which means eagles and other predators that eat the fish are exposed to the negative effects of mercury, according to environmental scientists.

So pollutants that travel to Maine on air currents threaten the health of the state's human and animal populations.

But Crawford cautioned that the amount of pollution given off by a power plant can depend on the kinds of technology used to prevent emissions.

"So it's very conceivable that you could have a new coal-fired plant that is cleaner than an older, oil-fired plant," he said.

Other sources

Not all of Maine's air pollution comes from power plants, or from out of state.

Ozone is a byproduct of the burning of gasoline in cars, trucks and gasoline-run power plants. It can also come from paint thinner and floor wax, but the largest manmade sources come from what Crawford called "mobile sources," the burning of gasoline from vehicles. Ozone causes breathing problems in children, the elderly and people with respiratory difficulties, such as emphysema. Ozone can also affect the growth of vegetation, Crawford said.

Large industrial pulp mills can also increase ozone levels because of the nitrogen oxides they give off, Crawford said.

Ozone tends to break down over land more quickly than over the ocean, which explains why coastal areas often have higher ozone levels in the summer than inland parts of Maine. Ozone blows into Maine from other states.

"Most of our ozone problems come from the southern New England states," Crawford said.

High temperatures tend to help with the formation of ozone, Crawford said.

Personal efforts

Judy Berk, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Council of Maine in Augusta, said that individuals can take steps to reduce air pollution. She has adjusted her lifestyle to both save energy and cut down the amount of air pollution connected to her life. She recommends that Maine households purchase what is called "green power," or electricity generated from non-polluting sources, through Maine Interfaith Power and Light. The Brunswick-based company ensures that its customers' power is generated by environmentally friendly sources. It sells electricity generated by water, wind, sun and wood to replace power generated by coal, oil, gas or uranium. Its Web site is www.meipl.org.

The electricity Berk pays for comes from wind generators, which are located mostly in the western United States. Berk estimated that she pays about $60 more a year in electricity costs than if she paid regular market costs.

Berk added that she and her husband, David Foley, have bought energy-efficient appliances and lights for their Northport home. She suggests people look at the energy efficiency of appliances when they shop for new ones.

A refrigerator or compact fluorescent light bulbs may appear more costly versus other items, but the energy efficiency saves money within months, she said.

"A lot of them save money within the first year, so I don't think of that as the long run," Berk said.

Another way people in Maine can help improve air quality is to use fuel-efficient vehicles, including hybrid cars, Berk said. Honda offers the Insight and Civic models and Toyota sells the Prius, all of which run of electric and gasoline engines.

The hybrid vehicles rely on gasoline engines to help charge the batteries or serve as a backup source of power, so they pollute less than vehicles with gasoline engines, Schneider said.

Hybrid vehicles cost around $20,000. Berk bought her Prius for that price last November. She gets about 50 miles per gallon of gasoline.

Gasoline-powered vehicles in the United States average about 23 miles per gallon. Berk said her new hybrid uses about a third less gasoline than her previous car, a Ford Escort. Berk estimates she will save about $400 a year in gasoline with the new vehicle, and she will pollute the air less than she did with her old car.

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