Technology has advanced since the development of the Clean Air Act in the 1970's, and in the past ten years, detectors of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) have become reliable, affordable, and mobile.

This means that direct measurements can be made on-site and on-demand if there is suspicion that an industrial emitter of HAPs is flooding public spaces with toxic emissions.

The Clean Air Act sets a floor – a minimum standard – for HAPs emissions from industrial sites. It does not set a ceiling. More stringent emissions standards may be issued under State authority. This State authority can be extended by the State of Maine to local municipalities that choose to adopt stricter standards. This rule change at the State level is what I will propose. What remains is a question of enforcement.

When detectors were large and expensive and centrally located, direct measurements in real-time were difficult if not impossible to obtain.

Consequently, Clean Air Act regulations for HAPs emissions were indirect. They relied heavily on engineering parameters, such as on the design and proper functioning of seals and vents, to model (as opposed measure) the HAPs released from sites of operation.

In addition, because of delays between measuring and getting results, emissions are still regulated as time-averages and do not account for short-term “bursts” of high concentration – even if that high concentration is far above safe levels of exposure. A whole year’s worth of permitted emissions can be blasted into neighborhoods in hours, and yet the emitter can still be in compliance according to Federal and State regulations.

It is time to update enforcement in a way that uses new detection technologies.

Zero-Tolerance policies are simple. Instead of quibbling over engineering specs and “tolerable exposures”, local laws can be crafted to simply say:

“Zero HAPs are permitted from industrial users into adjacent public spaces and residential neighborhoods.”

And now that tools are available and methods can be developed to identify the pollutant and its source, municipalities under this new “Zero-tolerance” authority can deploy local police powers to shut down offending operations as they are taking place and institute stiff fines for every minute the pollution is still detectable in public space.

Zero-Tolerance policies are not intended to replace existing Clean Air Act regulations. Industrial emitters would still be obligated to report to the Maine DEP under their licensing requirements and would still be licensed to emit. Dilution is the longstanding solution to the pollution. Zero-Tolerance policies simply require that the package of air leaving the emitter’s premises is no more detectably contaminated than the air going in. In other words, that dilution must take place before the emissions leave the premises.

It is true that we are all exposed to toxic pollutants from a wide array of sources from moment to moment. This does not excuse a business model that relies on poisoning neighborhoods. We can work to create the toxic-free world we want, but were too unaware to notice. Now we can know, and we can act responsibly and ethically on what we know.

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