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Editorial: Wrong End of the Tailpipe; Filthy Air Blows Eastward

Back in January, the Department of Environmental Services issued an alert to residents in southwestern New Hampshire. For three days, officials said, air pollution concentrations were expected to reach unhealthy levels. Children, older adults and anyone with heart or lung disease were advised to take precautions. Even healthy people were told to consider limiting strenuous or prolonged outdoor activities. Additionally, the haze could produce poor visibility.

The next day, the alert was broadened to include Cheshire, Hillsborough, Merrimack and Sullivan counties. Similar alerts were issued three more times over the course of the year, most recently in September in Rockingham County, where officials warned, “The expected unhealthy air quality is due to the persistence of high temperatures under sunny skies and light winds transporting pollution into New Hampshire from surrounding areas.” Air quality conditions in New Hampshire have improved considerably over the past two decades — and at considerable cost. But without the help of big Midwestern and Southern polluters, whose filth billows east and poisons our air, the state will have trouble making continued improvements.

That was the message last week not only from Gov. Maggie Hassan but also from seven other East Coast governors who petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force those states to clean up their acts. It’s about time.

The governors want the EPA to require nine upwind states — Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia — to reduce emissions that contribute to ozone in the East. The rules that those states would have to play by would be similar to those already in effect in the East. Essentially, they would be forced to join what’s known as the “Ozone Transport Region” under the federal Clean Air Act, using technologies proven on the East Coast to control pollution from power plants and factories and to switch to cleaner fuels to generate power.

As Hassan noted, “Even if the people of New Hampshire took every car off the road, we would, at best, reduce ozone by only 3 percent on bad air days. And on those bad air days, New Hampshire receives more than 95 percent of its air pollution from upwind states.” Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin was more combative: “We are importing by wind from Southern and Midwestern states the pollutants that are destroying our quality of life,” he told journalists, citing acid rain, dirty air, dying fish, health challenges for humans and the degradation of forests and, with it, the maple syrup industry.

Is the EPA likely to approve? There is already precedent for such a petition. Back in 2000, the agency required 12 states to control nitrogen emissions from about 400 large coal- and gas-fired power plants in response to East Coast petitions.

The governors’ new push comes just as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a related issue: the EPA’s “good neighbor” rule, which would force states west of here to rein in coal pollution, either through installing technology to control it or by shutting down power plants. Both efforts are important; the governors’ petition would seek even stronger protections for the region than the EPA’s case before the court.

Perhaps the only regrettable part about the Northeastern governors’ push is that their coalition is made up entirely of Democratic chief executives though, truly, air pollution knows no party. Should New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie decide to campaign in New Hampshire’s presidential primary, voters here might ask him why he hasn’t joined the fight for cleaner East Coast air.

Concord Monitor