January 18, 2022

Join the campaign against air pollution

Citizens all along the Maine coast who are sickened by “bad air days” should support the Maine DEP NOX reduction proposal for Wyman Station at a public hearing to be held at 1 p.m. Jan. 6 at the Holiday Inn in Augusta.

I remember the first time I saw Wyman. I was at a small coastal park when my asthmatic wife suddenly began to cough. I looked back at her and saw a huge ugly stack looming over the ocean through the smog behind her. The southwest wind was blowing directly our way. I hadn’t realized it was on an island.

This notorious “Dirty Dozen” polluter was “grandfathered” years ago to burn oil without modern stack-scrubbers, so that investors wouldn’t be “stranded” by expensive retro-fitting for obsolescent plants. But dirty power became so profitable they were kept on line. Most infuriating is that Wyman and the others burn most furiously in the middle of heat waves, when our air is at its worst, visibility is poorest, and acid rain and fog most destructive to coastal forests. This facility commits numerous violations, even though allowed to produce 4 times as much NOX as modern plants. It is then given only joke fines, that are cheaper to pay than clean up. It’s like getting a license to drive 80, paying a $10 fine every time you’re caught at 90, but never any getting any points on your license.

This past summer along the coast of Maine was one of the hottest, driest, most polluted on record. Ozone disrupted the lives of children, the elderly, even highly conditioned athletes. As an emergency physician, I see respiratory distress predictably increase in the summer months when the air turns brown, and people are warned about hiking in Acadia.

“Ozone warnings” actually underestimate the problem. When ozone is high, soot, most other pollutants, and pollens are too. They act together to make things worse than ever predicted by research done on single pollutants, in a laboratory, one at a time. Patients often tell me “I get this way when it’s hot like this.” But they don’t seem to realize it’s not the heat, and it’s not the humidity — it’s the pollution that’s making them sick.

Nowadays only patients needing intensive respiratory care are admitted to the hospital. Parents stay up all night doctoring sick kids and nursing elders, then try to work the next day. Kids are especially vulnerable. Even at rest, they inhale more per square inch of lung than adults. They ignore their symptoms- never stop moving. They’re embarrassed to use their inhalers.

Medications are locked in the office. Sometimes they think their parents are mad at them for being sick- sometimes they are. They end up wheezing in the ED late at night. ED visits and admissions are the small tip of a large iceberg. There are about 100,000 respiratory patients and twice as many hay fever sufferers in Maine. Medications are expensive. So are lost work days. The EPA has concluded scientifically that society can save far more by reducing pollution than industry can save by producing it.

In my lifetime, I have watched Maine become the “tailpipe of the nation.” I vividly remember my childhood near Acadia. Even in July we had beautiful blue days, green trees, clean white fog that blew in from the ocean in the late afternoon. In the 1960s the fog started to look dirty. I couldn’t believe it was smog from cities hundreds of miles away.

Then I went to medical school in San Diego. Several times a month in the winter, the wind would blow south from Los Angeles. We could see a huge orange-brown cloud coming down the coast. I could literally watch kids leave the tennis courts and soccer fields coughing as the cloud arrived. Three-on-three basketball games would stop dead.

Runners became walkers. The athletic fields were deserted until the cloud blew over. Now I see that same orange-brown cloud hanging over the coast for weeks on end.

I’ve also watched the spruce forest on the backshore of Cranberry Island sicken and die. Dull and weakened trees drip with acid fog for days on end. A few years ago, swaths of mature spruce were killed by “spruce budworm.” The old-timers had never even heard of spruce budworm, let alone seen a wholesale die-off of trees.

Wyman must remain such an arrogant scofflaw. Be at the hearing and speak out in favor of clean air. Join the campaign against the “Dirty Dozen.”

Paul A. Liebow, M.D. lives in Bucksport.

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