The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Legislature, which last spring led the nation toward tougher mercury-emission standards, found regional allies recently in the fight for cleaner air. The signing last week of action plans to reduce mercury and acid rain in New England and Eastern Canada was a victory of significant proportions.
The agreements are important for several reasons. They not only continue progress in reducing pollution past current argeements, which end in 1999, but use Maine’s model mercury legislation to commit the region to 50 percent reductions in mercury and sulfur dioxide and 30 percent cuts in nitrogen oxide. That means Maine, a low-population, relatively low-polluting state, won’t try to solve mercury deposition and acid rain problems by itself. The regionwide approach — and in Canada, the agreement will affect coal-fired powered plants — will result in much more effective policies.
With or without the regional agreements, however, Maine has a lot of work to do just to meet its own legislation. A task force created by the mercury bill passed during the last legislative session, for instance, is charged with finding practical alternatives to products containing mercury and of finding safer ways to dispose of mercury products. Finding safer products and creating a way to recycle those containing mercury will take several years. Hospitals, particularly, will be urged to find alternatives to mercury products they use and throw out.
On the acid rain question, Maine is depending on reduced levels of sulfur dioxide from the replacement of oil with natural gas to cut emissions. That will help, but a bigger factor may be the influence the agreement has on more industrialized states and provinces to the west, which contribute significantly to this region’s pollution troubles. By standing together, the Northeast and Maritime Canada will exert more pressure on others to reduce emissions.
Most of the recent news concerning relations between Canada and the United States is about disagreements, mostly over trade. The action plans on these pollutants show how the two nations can work together for mutual benefit. They are likely to serve as a model for other pollution agreements in the following years.