Vital Signs

maine. | January 2015

By: Philip Conkling
Photography: Fred Field

 

Maine’s environmental health check-up

The Air We Breath.

Anyone who has taken a hike up a Maine hilltop or mountain on a clear day can see for miles to where the blue horizon bends back toward the earth. But it was not always that way. Particularly in the summer, you would have also seen a hazy smudge of unhealthy air filtering in from the southwest.

Ed Miller, long-time head of the American Lung Association of Maine and now senior vice president for public policy for the Northeast chapter, has played a large role in improving the quality of the air we breathe. His thin, wiry frame suggests he might be a long-distance cyclist, which, in fact, is not just a recreational activity for him, but part of his organization’s DNA.

The success of the Lung Association’s effort to raise public awareness of the connection between human health and air quality is perhaps most evident from the remarkable growth of their marquee event, Trek Across Maine, a three-day cycling event and fundraiser that has built a passionate and powerful constituency of advocates from all walks of life. Last year the trek celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with over 2,100 participants and 700 volunteers, and raised nearly $2 million for the organization. Miller observes, “It is hard to find someone in Maine who hasn’t ridden or contributed to this remarkable event.”

Miller says that his work these days is focused on the Lung Association’s third 50-year plan. The first two 50-year plans were focused on tuberculosis and tobacco, while the current 50-year plan is focused on healthy air. During the past several years, the Lung Association has assembled a 60-member Maine Healthy Air Coalition, which has an easily understood goal: “The air you breathe should not make you sick or worsen your health.” The goal of the coalition is to provide public support for the federal Clean Air Act, since most of the air pollution in Maine is blown here from upwind sources in other states, as Maine Senator Ed Muskie, the chief sponsor of the original legislation over 40 years ago, was well aware.

Recent numbers appear to demonstrate the success of the Lung Association’s sustained effort to support clean air legislation. Ozone pollution—a key component of smog—is measured at various monitoring locations throughout Maine. In the ten-year period between 2003 and 2013, the number of ozone alert days, when the level of ozone exceeds the federal standard of 75 parts per billion, has decreased from 28 days per year to five. In the summer of 2014, there were no ozone alert days at all. A similar trend is evident in the statistics for high particle pollution. Miller is quick to point out that the current ozone standard is out of date with the latest scientific evidence. A new, stricter standard was proposed in December. So Miller has more work to do, but clearly the air we are breathing in Maine is getting healthier—and our hearts and lungs are the beneficiaries.

Taking Our Temperature

The ocean, Herman Melville reminded us, is an enduring mystery, partly because so much oceanic life is suspended in a complex broth of microscopic plants and animals that few of us ever see. The role of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) is to help everyone from school children to fishermen and politicians understand our connection to the oceanic treasures that are an inseparable part of our heritage.

Don Perkins, the head of GMRI, is not your average science geek. The son of a prominent lawyer, he grew up in Cape Elizabeth and studied anthropology at Dartmouth College before receiving an M.B.A. at Stanford. After completing his education, Perkins returned to Maine, where he went to work for various entrepreneurial business ventures in the Portland area prior to helping launch GMRI in 1995.

One of Perkins’s key colleagues is GMRI’s chief scientist, Andrew Pershing, who is an expert on tiny crustaceans that reproduce in prolific numbers some years and are scarce other years. Tracking down why their numbers change so dramatically led to a passion for measuring changes in the Gulf of Maine environment, where water temperature has emerged as the gulf’s most important indicator. Pershing was one of the first to observe that the average water temperature in the Gulf of Maine has increased a half-degree Fahrenheit each year since 2004. Even more disturbing, the waters of the Gulf of Maine have warmed faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans over this decade, altering the ecology on which the complex, interconnected marine food web is based.

Pershing and Perkins point to the extreme warming of the Gulf of Maine in the spring of 2012 that triggered lobsters to shed their shells three weeks ahead of their normal schedule. This freak event caused a huge glut of “shedders” on the market in May and June when there were no tourists to eat them, causing the price of lobsters to collapse to levels from which they have only partially recovered. Even though we think of 2014 as a cold year, it is on track to be the third warmest year in the last 35 years, and regulators have determined that Maine’s cold-water-dependent shrimp have been reduced to such low numbers the fishery will have to be closed again for the second winter in a row.

Although the edge of this warmer water is shifting northward at about 15 miles per year, which will cause an ecological “regime shift” in the Gulf of Maine away from cold water species such as cod and shrimp, Perkins suggests that there are also opportunities. He says Maine needs a more diversified portfolio of seafood landings— beyond our current heavy reliance on lobsters—to adapt to the future. He points to the need for new markets for such species as hake, kelp, oysters, and mussels.

Another of GMRI’s key staff members, Leigh Peake, oversees a large and sophisticated marine education program that is free to all middle school students in Maine thanks to generous corporate support for the program. Annually between 8,000 and 10,000 middle-schoolers learn hands-on science in the program. This is important since, as Peake points out, “kids are headed into a warmer world, but also a world that is defined by data.” GMRI’s challenge is to build scientific literacy to help Maine’s students deal with the warmer world that is at their doorsteps and to inspire them to become knowledgeable and effective stewards of a changing Gulf of Maine.

The Food We Eat

When we think of Maine farming, most of us imagine bucolic vistas of dairy cows in a rolling pasture or expansive acres of potatoes in Aroostook County. But Maine farmers are producing, and most of us are consuming, an increasing variety of Maine farm products at a time when there is wide recognition that there is no more important indicator of our health than what we are eating.

Maine Farmland Trust was founded in 1999 by its current president and CEO, John Piotti, along with Russell Libby, the late, legendary head of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and a group of what Piotti described as “dirt on the boots farmers.” The organization has kept its fingers on the pulse of Maine’s farm and food systems during the past 15 years. What it has achieved is nothing short of a revolution in what we eat and where it comes from.

John Piotti came to Maine via Nantucket, where he might have returned after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1985, but he could not go home again because in the short time he was in college and graduate school, real estate prices on the island skyrocketed as his home became super- trendy. His soon-to-be-wife, Susan, who grew up in Manchester, Vermont, had a similar experience. Piotti asked himself whether rural areas were doomed either to become trendy and push local people out or fail to attract newcomers and wither away. In searching for an answer to this seemingly intractable dilemma Piotti would find his life’s work.

When Piotti moved to Maine in 1987 he was attracted to the state’s small, tightly knit communities, which reminded him of his island roots. Once here he began focusing his efforts on sustainable development strategies while working at Maine’s innovative nonprofit development banking organization, Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI). Settling in the rural community of Unity, he soon found himself co-chairing the town’s comprehensive planning committee with a dairy farmer, Dick Perkins. Perkins quickly challenged his co-chair. “You say you care about rural communities,” said Perkins, “but you know nothing about farming.”

Piotti knew that Perkins was right. He had thought that farming in Maine was about the past, not about the state’s future. But he began to recognize that Maine could never have sustainable rural communities throughout most of the state without agriculture. He could see that many of Maine’s agricultural fields were productive. He soon learned that, in his words, “our farmers aren’t struggling because of the fundamentals; we have good land, plenty of water, and handy access to markets.” What Maine agriculture needed, Piotti decided, was a broader constituency and a change in our mindset, which led to his creation of the Maine Farms Project at CEI.

Piotti and his partners were well ahead of the curve when they started, but the zeitgeist has caught up with their vision. The amount of local produce sold at farmers’ markets and supermarkets continues to rise. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of young farmers in Maine under age 34 increased by almost 40 percent. Since 2002, the number of farms in Maine increased by just shy of 1,000, with 48 percent of farmers listing farming as their primary occupation, higher than the national average. During the past five years alone, the value of Maine’s farm production has increased by 24 percent.

Along the way, the Maine Farmland Trust has supported over 400 farm families and protected 40,000 acres of farmland in the state. Piotti credits this success in part to the fact that the conservation community has also embraced farming’s promise. In too many other states, he says, the farm community and the environmental community are in open conflict, but not in Maine. “There are farmers who never would have protected their property 15 years ago,” Piotti said, “but have now because they can see a future in farming.”

Renewing Your Energy Level

What do you do when your doctor says you need a strategy to renew your energy? This is a question Phil Coupe has spent a long time thinking about.

Phil Coupe is a serial entrepreneur who started his first business on mudflats in Scarborough, digging worms to sell to local fishermen. After graduating from college with a journalism degree and moving to Washington, D.C., he was assigned a business story about a guy starting up a water bottling business that turned municipal tap water into highly purified bottled water—at a profit. Coupe was intrigued and asked for a job. By the time he left 10 years later, the company had built a $6 million business and created two spinoffs. In 2004, with his wife pregnant with twins, Coupe was eager to return to Maine to raise his children. When he came back, he had two goals: he wanted to be part of something that would make the world a better place, and he wanted to save enough for a college education for his kids.

While researching business ideas, Coupe came across a fact that startled him. Despite Maine’s reputation as a pristine place to visit, Maine has one of the highest per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the nation and is highly reliant on fossil fuels for virtually all of its energy needs. He calls it “Maine’s dirty little secret.” Coupe also learned that Maine has an abundant solar resource; in fact, we get 33 percent more sunshine per year than Germany, the world leader in solar energy adoption.

Convinced there was an untapped opportunity in solar power, Coupe searched around for businesses in the solar energy field to partner with and came across Energyworks in Liberty, which “looked to be the strongest solar company in Maine.” So he called up an owner, Bill Behrens, a former professor at Dartmouth with a PhD from M.I.T. in environmental engineering, and asked for a meeting.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Liberty. Behrens had just received a similar call from another fellow, Fortunat Mueller, who had been living in Hartford, Connecticut, working for United Technologies. Mueller also wanted to move to Maine and work in the renewable energy sector. Coupe and Mueller rode from Portland to Liberty together to meet with Behrens and his partner, Pat Coon, resulting in a decision that Coupe and Mueller would open an Energyworks facility in Portland in 2006. Within a year the Portland office had caught up to Liberty in sales, and the two companies decided to merge and take the enterprise statewide. They named themselves ReVision Energy and have installed about 4,200 solar facilities in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. In 2009, the partners launched ReVision Heat with a goal of delivering clean energy solutions for the 440,000 oil boilers that heat Maine homes and produce large quantities of greenhouse gases with a goal of reducing Maine’s $5 billion fossil fuel bill.

According to industry experts, a modern automated pellet boiler (which isn’t the same as the more familiar pellet stove) will heat your home and reduce your fuel costs by 50 percent, reduce your greenhouse gas emission by 90 percent, and use a local fuel that is produced 100 percent in the state of Maine. Two years later, they started a sister company, Interphase Energy, that distributes a Danish wood pellet boiler throughout northern New England, with hopes one day of manufacturing the boilers in Brunswick.

Standing next to his company’s solar- charged electric car, with which he makes sales calls, Coupe says, “We are trying to model the future. And my guys get tremendously excited about dragging an oil boiler to the metal recycler. We measure success one oil boiler at a time.”

This article was originally published by maine. magazine. Maine Media Collective © 2016