Reports: County air quality improves, Gov. Baker gets ‘C’ on environment

  • Gov. Charlie Baker AP FILE PHOTO

Thursday, April 20, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — Advocacy groups on Wednesday released two reports delivering mixed assertions on the state of the environment in Massachusetts.

The two reports:

The 2017 “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association: The annual report said Hampshire County saw six high “ozone days” in 2016, down from 14 the year before. The improvement was the best in the state, the report noted.

The Second Massachusetts Energy and Environment Report Card: Seven environmental groups published the report Thursday, giving Gov. Charlie Baker a “C” grade on environmental issues, what the authors called a “mediocre” score and the same as last year’s grade.

State of the Air

The 18th annual American Lung Association report noted seven out of 10 reporting counties in Massachusetts improved on their ozone scores compared to last year’s report.

Ozone is formed when emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes react to sunlight. On the ground it is a pollutant, but ozone also occurs naturally in the Earth’s atmosphere and blocks the sun’s harmful UV rays from hitting the ground.

The report notes one in five residents of the commonwealth live in counties that did not pass the annual test, including Bristol and Essex counties.

“The progress we’ve made has still left over 1.3 million Massachusetts residents to breathe unhealthful levels of ozone, putting them at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks, worsened COPD symptoms and cardiovascular harm,” said Jeff Seyler, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast.

The report also tracks particle pollution, which comes from coal-fired power plants, diesel engines, wood-fired devices and wildfires. Every reporting county in Massachusetts received an “A” grade in this category, a national trend the association attributes to the phasing out of old diesel engines and the “cleanup” of coal-fired power plants.

Nationally, the report notes lower overall ozone levels and lower year-round particle levels. But wildfires and droughts contributed to short-term spikes in particle levels, offsetting the positive news.

The improved outlook for Massachusetts and Hampshire County came with two caveats: that a warming climate makes ozone harder to clean up; and that debates on loosening climate regulations could upend progress made.

“That is not something we should take for granted,” Casey Harvell Bowers, director of public policy in Massachusetts for the ALA of the Northeast, said of the particle pollution grading. She said if the United States saw a “resurgence in those outdated technologies, Massachusetts could easily trend the other way.”

Richard Peltier, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told the Gazette last year pollution problems in Hampshire County have little to do with pollution generated here, saying wind from the southwest is mostly to blame.

“There’s always the old adage that Massachusetts is the tailpipe of the U.S.,” Peltier said. “And it’s true.”

Baker gets a ‘C’

The second report was published by the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, the Charles River Watershed Association, the Conservation Law Foundation, Clean Water Action, Environment Massachusetts, Sierra Club Massachusetts and the Environmental League of Massachusetts.

It was the second year for the report. Last year, Baker also received a “C.”

The authors said the governor has failed to boost environmental spending to 1 percent of the state’s annual budget, a campaign promise.

“His three budgets have moved the commonwealth in the opposite direction,” the authors write, adding that the governor’s enforcement of environmental laws is not adequate and that environmental agencies are “cut to the bone.” The report also jabs the governor for his support of gas pipelines in the state.

He did receive an “A” for work on a food waste ban and a “B-plus” on energy-efficiency issues.

Baker, a Republican, has voiced a commitment to investing in renewable energy sources and in climate-change adaptation measures to fight problems like beach erosion and sea level rise.

This week, he announced $455,000 in clean energy grants directed to researchers and companies to support clean energy and water research, according to a news release.

Peter Lorenz, Baker’s Energy and Environmental Affairs spokesman, in a statement said the administration is committed to combating climate change by securing clean, affordable energy, and said the state is on track to successfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Baker also announced $2.6 million in grants for coastal towns to improve water quality and invest in infrastructure that would boost resiliency in the face of climate change.

“Our administration is committed to combating and preparing for the impacts of climate change,” Baker said.

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.