Earth Day: Mainers get good grades but …


AUGUSTA — We asked experts to helps us compare how Maine was doing environmentally compared to the nation.

Not surprisingly, Maine is doing better in air quality, water quality and the amount we recycle.

It started 40 years ago when Maine U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie sponsored what became the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. (More bragging rights, Muskie was a native of Rumford.) Because of those laws and all the work that followed, “Maine has air and waters statewide that are much cleaner than they were, and much cleaner than other states east of the Mississippi River,” said David Littell, Department of Environmental Protection commissioner.

Maine has many of the most intact ecosystems among eastern states, such as strong cold-water fisheries, which have 75 percent of the eastern habitat in Maine, Littell said. “We need to continue to protect high-quality air, water, and habitats, while permitting development in lower quality areas.”

The next environmental battle, he said, is climate change.

“We need federal climate change legislation to pass so the entire U.S. moves forward with the type of greenhouse-gas-reduction plan Maine has been successfully implementing,” Littell said. Just as the country committed itself to clean water and air in the 1970s, “we need the federal government committed to tackling global warming through strategies that enhance U.S. energy independence.”

Mainers have a right to be proud of what’s been done, but there’s room for improvement. From our wood stove to the trash we put out to how much we drive, there’s a lot of little things we can do — or not do — to help the environment our grandchildren will grow up in.

Happy Earth Day.

Littell recommends everyone make time today to get outside, walk around the neighborhood or park, hike at a preserve. Enjoy what we have.


Improving our Air: Wood stoves, motor vehicles and energy

Ed Miller, who heads the American Lung Association in Maine, is an expert on the cleanliness of air. He gives Maine air a grade of C.

“We’re not Los Angeles, but we’re also not as clean as we could be,” Miller said. Maine has a lot of people committed to cleaning the air, including politicians, environmentalists and industry including paper makers and oil dealers .

Maine’s doing better than the nation, Miller said. Statistics from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection back that up.

Per capita, Mainers emit less greenhouse gases — a broad category of air pollution that happens from the combustion of fossil fuels — than the nation. And even before all those windmills come on line, Maine’s rates are going down.

According to the DEP, in 2003 the per capita rate of greenhouse gas emissions in Maine was 20.2 metric tons, compared to 20.36 for the nation. In 2008 the per capita rate in Maine was 16.49 compared to 19.2 for the nation.

The reasons for the improvement include efforts to become energy efficient, more buildings converting to natural gas, a decline of use of electricity, gasoline and oil due to price spikes, said Jame Brooks, director of the DEP’s Air Quality Bureau.

Even though most Maine households rely on oil for heat, many other states rely on coal, which is dirtier than oil, Brooks said.

While Maine’s doing better than the nation, Miller said that’s not much to brag about considering he gives the nation a grade of D, “if not an F. For nearly a decade the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to adjust the air pollution standards to levels recommended by their own scientific advisers,” he said. “At least six out of 10 people in the country live where the air is unhealthy.”

Maine-grown pollution.

In Maine, two major air pollutants are ozone and particulates.

Much of the summer ozone pollution comes from other states, “but we add to it,” Miller said. Cars and trucks, ATVs, snowmobiles, motorcycles and boats all contribute.

Two of the biggest particulate sources in Maine are from diesel exhaust and smoke from old wood stoves.

Wood stove smoke is almost the same kind of pollution as second-hand smoke, contributing to lung disease, cancer and asthma. “Older stoves can give off significant smoke when opened and closed.” Burning in a fireplace is also unhealthy, Miller said. “The particulate pollution is the stuff you can see from the smoke. But it’s the stuff you don’t see, particulates so small they go right into your blood stream and lungs. That’s dangerous.”

Two years ago the majority of wood stoves in Maine were not EPA-certified and were polluting. Since then many have been replaced with newer certified stoves or pellet stoves, which both burn cleaner, Miller said.

What we can do.

One of the best ways to reduce air pollution is use less energy.

Many don’t equate using less electricity with air pollution, but there’s a connection, Miller said. When less electricity is used, less has to be generated. Generating electricity usually makes pollution. Doing things like turning off lights, using energy-efficient refrigerators and other appliances, light bulbs, and not using air conditioning, all help. He also recommends people buy green electricity from clean, renewable energy like tidal, water and wind.

Whatever you heat with, conserve, Brooks said. Make sure your home is insulated.

Another big source of air pollution is transportation. The more gas you use, the more you pollute. “Reduce your driving more and drive energy-efficient vehicles.”

Improving our land: recycling

Maine recycling rate beats the national average.

In 2008 Maine recycled 38.7 percent of its municipal trash, compared to 33 percent nationally.

“We’re doing a very good job of recycling,” said George MacDonald, who heads up recycling for the Maine State Planning.

But, there’s room for improvement. Maine set a recycling goal of 50 percent more than 20 years ago.

That 50 percent goal, set in 1989, is very doable, MacDonald said. Maine isn’t there yet for two reasons.

The ease of recycling varies in municipalities.

In some places, like Portland, it’s easy with curbside and “single stream” (everything-goes-in-one-container) recycling. Plus residents have to pay $1 or more per bag for garbage bags. The more they throw in the recycling bins, the longer those bags last and the less they spend.

In other Maine communities there are no curbside recycling programs, or recycling has been cut due to tight budgets.

Still, MacDonald said, the majority of municipalities have ways for residents to recycle the big items: newspapers, cardboard, No. 2 plastics like milk jugs, glass jars and tin cans.

The second reason Maine’s not at 50 percent is habit, or lack of it.

“Throwing stuff away is too convenient.” Recycling isn’t difficult, but does take planning. “In today’s busy world people have 16 things to do and time to do only 10,” MacDonald said. “But there are paper mills that want your newspaper. Glass manufacturers who want your glass. People don’t think about that.”

For Maine to reach the 50 percent goal would take a concerted effort by those running community programs and residents, MacDonald said.

Those who don’t recycle, “50 to 70 percent of what’s in their trash bag is recyclable,” MacDonald said. Regardless of how good or not-so-good a municipal program is, everyone can compost, MacDonald said. Instead of bagging grass clippings (don’t rake, leave grass clippings) and throwing out kitchen scraps — coffee grinds, tea bags, egg shells, vegetable peelings, brownish lettuce — put both in a compost pile or compost bin in the backyard. That could remove 20 percent of the weight in your trash bag.

“These are simple things people can do,” MacDonald said. “The message for Earth Day is let’s reduce our impact on the environment and keep this planet alive for us.”

Protecting our water: Runoff pollution, mercury

Compared to the nation, a large majority of Maine rivers, lakes and other water bodies meet pollution laws, or the federal Clean Water Act.

“Overall our average is over 90 percent,” compared to 65 percent nationally, said Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner David Littell. “We do a lot better than most states.”

In Maine, rivers tend to be cleaner than lakes. In 2008, 96 percent of Maine rivers met standards, compared to 92 percent of Maine lakes.

Statewide, neat the top of the the to-do list is reducing mercury levels in fish, a longstanding problem in Maine and across the country.

“When you look at water quality it’s no longer a pipe in the river. It’s the air,” said Andy Fisk, director of DEP’s Water Quality Bureau. “We’ve got to think about air quality to improve water.”

For decades Maine and other states have had to issue advisory warnings telling citizens, especially young children and pregnant women, to limit how much fish they eat because the fish contains mercury.

In Maine steps have been taken to keep mercury from getting into the environment, but much of the mercury in water comes from out-of-state air pollution.

Now, the state will try to force the federal Environmental Protection Agency to do something, Fisk said. “We’ve said to the EPA, ‘if our science is correct, all this mercury is coming down on our water. You have an obligation to clean this up under your law.’ That’s in the works. We’re hopeful that will result in action.”

In the last 10 years Maine has removed mercury from products, and ensured mercury doesn’t get into the environment. One example is old mercury dental fillings that can no longer be washed down the drain, Fisk said. A bigger example is technology to reduce air pollution applied to Maine smokestacks, Fisk said.

Those kind of measures are needed nationally, from the Ohio dentist releasing mercury into the waste stream to Midwestern coal plants that generate electricity and emit pollution that falls on Maine.

Maine-grown pollution: In Maine, one source of water pollution is runoff, dirt and other pollutants, including lawn fertilizer and pesticides, that get washed into water.

There are lots of ways lakes gets polluted from runoff, Fisk said. “It’s a lot of small things that add up.”

Runoff is also a problem for rivers. Storm water runoff is sewage that mixes with storm water when heavy rains fill and overflow sewer systems. It only impacts a small percentage of rivers, “but if you look in terms of miles, it’s several hundred,” Fisk said.

Another threat is runoff pollution from parking lots, streets and roofs. A 1997 state law requires new developments to put in vegetated buffer strips near parking lots to control runoff. DEP is also telling businesses around polluted water that they have to take steps to prevent runoff pollution, which is happening in the Maine Mall area to improve Long Creek.

What we can do: Pay attention to products you buy, thinking about where they will end up when you’re done with them, Littell said. Clean with vinegar, not chemicals. “Look for products that are greener or have less toxins.”

In addition to using less or eliminating fertilizer or pesticides, “Pay attention to everyday acts,” Littell said. Keep your vehicle running efficiently and ensure it’s not leaking anything. What’s in the parking lot or road can end up in streams, rivers or brooks.

Androscoggin River: Not there yet, but soon. One river that does not meet Clean Water Act standards is the Gulf Island Pond in the Androscoggin River. Within a year it will, according to a proposed new pollution license DEP is about to give to paper mills, said Andy Fisk, director of DEP’s Air Quality Bureau.

The proposed license will lower how much pollution paper mills can dump, Fisk said.

5 things to do to improve air quality:

  1. Conserve electricity, buy efficient appliances and products such as compact fluorescents or even better, LEDs.
  2. Drive a vehicle that gets good gas mileage; keep it tuned.
  3. Make sure your home is insulated.
  4. Use an EPA certified wood or pellet stove.
  5. Drive less, carpool if you can, and support public policy and legislation that moves us toward clean and healthy energy and transportation.

Source: Department of Environmental Protection, American Lung Association of Maine

5 things to improve recycling rates:

  1. Find out what your local recycling program accepts for materials, adjust your home’s system to match.
  2. Build a backyard compost pile, keeps organics out of the trash. It will reduce odor, and you get a soil-enriching product at no cost.
  3. Use smaller trash cans; they fill up faster and make you think twice before tossing something.
  4. Make recycling more convenient in your home; keep the recycling bin near the trash can.
  5. Think about the waste generated as you buy something. Make a pledge to recycle more and throw away less, and keep that pledge

—From George MacDonald, Maine State Planning Office

5 things to improve water quality

  1. Prevent erosion. Soil erosion is the single greatest threat to water quality. Seed and mulch bare ground.
  2. Use trees and shrubs to filter runoff. Every time it rains, pollutants are washed from driveways, roofs, yards, parking lots and roads into ditches. From there the runoff goes to streams, rivers, lakes or  groundwater. A ribbon of bushes, trees and ground cover (buffers) can act as a sponge and filter out contaminants.
  3. Use less fertilizer and pesticides. Fertilizing your lawn and garden can result in phosphorus and nitrogen that can run off and get into streams, lakes and the ocean. If you leave the grass clippings, you don’t need to fertilize; grass clippings are free fertilizer. Pesticides, which are toxic, can create health problems for people and animals. Compared to 15 years ago, three times as much yard care pesticides are brought into Maine. Pesticides can wash off into into water bodies. If you have pests, spot treat. Learn to like dandelions.
  4. Maintain septic systems. About 50 percent of Mainers use septic systems. Inadequate septic systems account for 5 to 10 percent of all phosphorus that reaches lakes. Toxins, nitrates, nutrients, bacteria and viruses from inadequate septic systems can seep into wells. That pollution also flows into streams, harms lakes, and on the coast, causes clam flats and beaches to be closed.
  5. If you have a septic system, don’t use septic additives, don’t pour grease or food down your sink, pump your system every two to three years. If your septic system was installed before 1974, consider replacing it.

Source: Department of Environmental Protection