Advocates urge Maryland to reinstate smog curb on power plants

Environmental advocates urged Maryland regulators Monday to reinstate a rule withdrawn by the Hogan administration that would require power plants to curtail their smog-forming pollution or shut down. 

About 40 people, many of them wearing "I love clean air" stickers, came to the Maryland Department of the Environment in Baltimore for a public hearing on a new state regulation that would require coal-burning power plants to maximize the use of their existing pollution controls.

Already in effect as an emergency rule, the provision seeks to limit emissions of nitrogen oxides, a component in the formation of ground-level ozone or smog, while state regulators weigh what additional pollution reductions might be required.

At Monday's hearing, speaker after speaker - many of them active in the Maryland Sierra Club - called for MDE to get on with cleaning up the state's air, saying it was a health issue.

The O'Malley administration had finalized a regulation just days before Gov. Larry Hogan took office that would have given a handful of older, smaller power plants until 2020 to install costly pollution control equipment, switch to cleaner-burning natural gas or shut down.  

The owner of two Baltimore area plants, H.A. Wagner and C.P. Crane, accepted that mandate. But NRG, which owns two Washington-area plants that would have been affected, contended the requirement wasn't necessary. The New Jersey-based company says it doesn't oppose new regulations, but wants flexibility to comply, arguing that otherwise it would be forced to shut down its facilities, laying off hundreds.

Hogan acted within hours of taking office to stop that requlation and several others put out at the end of the O'Malley administration. Weeks later, MDE issued an emergency rule requiring better pollution control operations for now, with future reductions to be determined.

MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles has said that whatever the agency decides about future pollution controls will be at least as protective of public health as the O'Malley administration rule that Hogan withdrew. 

The Sierra Club and another group, Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsiblity, have gone to court seeking to force MDE to adopt the O'Malley requirement, without further delay.

One of those who testified, Jackie Fullerton, called for "drastic action" to curb all air pollution, including that contributing to climate change. The 24-year-old Kingsville resident, said she has asthma, and feels like she's going to die at times when she has attacks. Research has shown such breathing difficulties can be triggered or aggravated by elevated ozone levels in the air.

Doris Toles didn't speak at the hearing, but afterward said many there had spoken for her. The 63-year-old Baltimore woman said she's suffered from asthma nearly all her life and in recent years has come down with an even more serious condition, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. She said she risks breathing difficulties flaring up from airborne allergens or pollutants.

"I have medication I must take ... to just keep going," she said.

A power plant representative was present at the hearing, but did not speak, according to an MDE official.

At the end of the hearing, regulators said they plan to meet July 28 with "stakeholders," including power plant owners and environmentalists, to talk about the next step.

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