LEWISTON, Maine — A proposal by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection seeking to exempt industry from a state air-pollution regulation has the support of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

And, despite the concerns being raised by environmental advocates, the change would not mean industries in Maine would be allowed to pollute more, said Dave Conroy, chief of the Air Programs Branch of the EPA’s New England Region in Boston.

“The EPA favors this change and has already proposed approval of this change and is asking Maine to go through the appropriate public-comment period,” Conroy said.

He said Wednesday the federal government also would take public comments on the proposed change. “We proposed approval based on our analysis, but we are taking comment on this as well,” he said. “There’s nothing predetermined.”

The change would allow industries seeking to develop or expand in Maine to be treated the same as those in other states that are meeting federal air-quality standards.

Specifically, it would allow industries to be exempt from purchasing emission credits for nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds, but it would not allow Maine to backslide. Under federal law, the state would still be required to meet and maintain federal air-quality standards, Conroy said.

Current rules require those so-called “offset” credits to be purchased from entities that have shuttered operations. That way, there is no net gain in emissions of smog-creating pollutants across the Ozone Transport Zone, which stretches from the Washington, D.C., area to northern Maine.

As a revision to the federal Clean Air Act passed in 1990, the credits are part of a set of regulatory reforms that have improved air quality. States that have not attained federal air-quality standards must enforce the credit process but those within attainment do not.

The state comment period on the proposed change ended Tuesday, but a public hearing on the change will be scheduled soon, said Marc Cone, director of the Maine Bureau of Air Quality at the state DEP.

Many of the 37 comments on the proposed change were requests for a public hearing on the issue.

Cone said Wednesday the credits that companies must purchase have become an unnecessary barrier to economic development in Maine and that at least two wood-pellet manufacturing companies looking to expand have voiced concern over the cost of the credits. Cone said finding available credits is difficult, and they cost between $5,000 and $10,000. A typical company needs between 60 and 100 credits, he said.

Both Cone and Conroy said they didn’t believe the waiver of the credit requirement would give Maine an economic advantage over other states with more stringent requirements. Cone said the credits were among multiple obstacles facing industries hoping to locate or expand in Maine.

“Decisions about what facilities open or close or shut down or expand are generally based on a number of economic factors, and environmental (regulation) factors generally play a very small role in that,” Conroy said.

He said the U.S. EPA’s perspective is that available natural resources and proximity to markets and labor forces have a much bigger impact on economic development.

Allowing Maine to be on a footing with other states that are within attainment of federal air-quality standards is more a matter of equity and is based on both federal and state analysis. The change would have no impact on overall air pollution or air quality here.

Cone said all possible new sources of air pollution would still be held to stringent standards and would be required to use the most current “state-of-the-art control technologies.”

The state would not be allowed to issue any permits that “degrade (current) air quality,” Cone said. Instead, the change removes a burdensome requirement that is antiquated and ineffective, he said.

But the state’s environmental community is still concerned that an exemption for Maine from the standard could create a domino effect.

Other states that have partially attained federal standards could also ask for waivers seeking to level the economic playing field, which could set back the air-quality improvements that have been gained over the past two decades.

They also argue that while the state may not have an obligation under federal law to keep to the more stringent standards, it has a moral and ethical obligation to limit air pollution.

“Maine has long held to the position that we are going to maintain clean hands,” said Pete Didisheim, senior advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Air pollution from Maine industry might not affect neighboring states, but it does have an impact on Canadian provinces. “There are still people who live north of us,” Didisheim said.

“What Maine is requesting is to relieve Maine, and only Maine, from this requirement that we no longer have to require major new sources and upgrades to meet this offset on ozone-creating (volatile organic compounds),” Didisheim said. “It’s a pretty big step for one of the states within this (ozone transport region) system to say, ‘We want out.’”

He also said that while the state and federal environmental agencies both support the change, the Maine DEP was not transparent in how it notified the public to its proposal.

One legal advertisement seeking public comment on the proposed change was printed in an edition of the Kennebec Journal on Saturday, June 29.

The department also posted the notice seeking comment on its website, but Didisheim and others have said the information was not easy to find.

“They published it in one newspaper on one day and on the lowest circulation day for newspapers,” Didisheim said. “No one can tell me that the DEP hasn’t been trying to hide this policy change.”

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.