Connecticut, 7 other states seek EPA crackdown on Midwest pollution

Connecticut and seven other eastern states, all with Democratic governors and all under longstanding orders to reduce air pollution, said Monday they are petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency to force stricter air standards on nine upwind states from the Rust Belt and Appalachia that rely on coal-fired power plants.

The governors said their states have largely exhausted ways to mitigate local ozone pollution and now must act decisively to force upwind states to reduce pollution at the source. Efforts at negotiation have failed, leaving the eastern governors with no choice but to seek federal intervention.

“They have been warned. They know this action is coming,” said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, one of four governors who addressed the media Monday, either by conference call or in a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Malloy said the eight states are seeking federal action to lower unhealthful ozone levels that plague places like Connecticut’s Fairfield County on many summer days and produce acid rain across Vermont and New Hampshire, degrading lakes and forests that are key to tourism.

Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont said the states acting Monday are “tailpipe states,” places where pollution generated from states to the west and south is dumped by prevailing winds.

“We’re sick and tired of being the tailpipe for the polluters from our west and south,” Shumlin said.

Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire said her state could take every car off the road and still see ozone levels drop by just 3 percent.

All eight states are in the Ozone Transport Region, a swath of 11 Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states under EPA orders to reduce air pollution. The three states in the region not signing onto the petition are Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maine, all of which have Republican governors.

The states filing the petition are Delaware, Maryland, New York and every New England state except Maine. 

Malloy jumped to answer a question about the absence of GOP governors signing the petition.

“It should not surprise anyone that the Republican Party has been adverse to the EPA for many years, including presidential candidates in the past calling for elimination of this organization,” Malloy said. The governor suggested it would be politically difficult for any GOP governor to petition the EPA.

Left unsaid is that it would be doubly difficult for a potential presidential candidate like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to sign onto an action that could force the swing state of Ohio to reduce its use of cheap coal or invest in clean-air technology. 

Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware said plenty of Republican voters want to see cleaner air.

“The science here is the same whether you are a Democrat or a Republican,” Markell said.

Malloy said he would have been happy to file a similar petition on his own three years ago, at the outset of his first term as governor. But he said it was important to negotiate a broader approach by the states in the Ozone Transport Region, or OTR, which have spent tens of billions of dollars to reduce local emissions.

The petition asks that polluting states, whose local air quality has not triggered the same EPA standards faced by Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, be added to the OTR. Those states are: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Malloy said success at the EPA could mean a dramatic reduction in the number of days in which Connecticut exceeds the federal standards for ozone levels.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection says that more than 80 percent of the ozone level in the state — higher in lower Fairfield County — is because of upwind pollution. In 2013, monitoring showed that air entering Connecticut already exceeded ozone standards on 16 of the 18 days when air quality here failed to meet federal standards.

Generally, Connecticut’s air pollution levels have dropped in half since the 1980s.

“That trend really is a product of better air pollution control,” said Karl Wagener, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality, which tracks the data. “Day in day out Connecticut does a good job of getting pollution down.”

Cars are cleaner, business and industry pollute less, power plants now run mainly on cleaner natural gas, he said.

“Our nemesis continues to be hot days,” he said.

And that has set up what the CEQ refers to as the “pollution paradox.” While the air is cleaner, the state in the last few years has started to see an increase in bad air days. There were 27 in 2012, the worst year since 2002. There were 24 in 2010. There are 17 so far this year Wagener said, which puts the state on track for an average year.

A lot of the summertime pollution comes in on southwest and western winds. “But we also own some of that summertime pollution ourselves,” Wagener said.

The increased need for air conditioning prompts a greater use of electricity that often requires firing up older, dirtier power plants. If there’s widespread heatwave, the northeast will also feel the effects of increased power usage downwind.

The worst of the state’s pollution tends to be along the shoreline, which catches more of the wind as well as automobile pollution from 1-95. During the heatwave of July 17-20, 2013 the worst readings were seen in Westport, Madison, Stratford and Greenwich. Each day registered readings that exceeded EPA’s daily 8-hour ozone maximums. 

The govenors’ petition is the latest legal action being taken by the OTR states. They successfully supported a request for the U.S. Supreme Court to review a lower-court ruling that weakened EPA jurisdiction over air pollution from power plants that affects downwind states. Arguments in the case are scheduled for Tuesday.

One of the governors’ complaints is that their states have invested to clean the air, while the upwind states have not. The cost of removing an additional ton of pollution in Connecticut is estimated at between $10,000 and $40,000, compared with as little as $500 a ton in upwind states.

Collin O’Mara, the secretary of energy and the environment in Delaware, said the existing federal standard of 75 parts per billion actually exceeds the well-recognized health standard of 70 parts per billion. The goal of the petition is to meet the healthy standard.

O’Mara and Daniel C. Esty, the Connecticut commissioner, hosted the news conference in Washington, D.C.

Malloy orginally planned to attend, but he opted to stay in Hartford and participate by phone after the region was hit by an ice storm. He and Shumlin could be heard talking about weather and travel on the open phone line before the conference.

Shumlin told Malloy he made it only as far as Boston.

“Where are you?” Shumlin ask.

“In my office,” Malloy said. “And I think I’m going to try to stay there.”

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