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Coal still a major cause of Maryland's toxic air pollution

Plant OpeningsConservationEnvironmental PollutionCoalAir Pollution

Maryland may have some of the nation's strictest limits on power plant pollution, but its residents are still breathing more toxic emissions from those facilities than in most other states. The state's reliance on burning coal for electricity appears to be the underlying reason, it seems.

That's the upshot of a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council that tallies the 20 states with the highest levels of hazardous air pollutants from power plants in 2010. Maryland ranks 19th, well down the list from big coal-mining and -burning states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, but just ahead of tiny Delaware.

The good news somewhat buried in the environmental group's report is that Maryland's air got dramatically cleaner in 2010, as a tough new state pollution law forced power plants to sharply curtail their hazardous emissions. 

Three years ago, the state had the 5th worst power-plant pollution, according to the NRDC.  But hazardous emissions from them had plummeted 88 percent  by 2010, the group says. No other state cleaned up as much.

The Healthy Air Act, passed in 2006, required that by 2010 Maryland's power plants had to reduce emissions of hazardous pollutants, including mercury, by 70 to 80 percent from their levels a decade ago. Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said that hazardous emissions continued to decline last year, falling to 92 percent below 2002 levels.

"We’re trending in the right direction, and we’re trending rapidly in the right direction,'' Apperson said. There were just 154 pounds of mercury emitted in 2010, the NRDC report noted, which ranked 39th among the states.

As of 2010, though, Marylanders were still exposed to nearly 5.6 million pounds of toxic air pollutants, with more than half coming from power plants.

"The reality is power plants in Maryland burn coal,"  MDE's Apperson said. Indeed, roughly half the electricity generated in the state comes from coal.

But Apperson noted that the state's air should get cleaner still, as the Healthy Air Act requires further emission reductions from power plants by 2014.  Highly toxic mercury, which get into the food chain and can cause neurological and developmental problems in children, must be cut by 90 percent from what they were a decade ago.

The NRDC put out its "Toxic Power" report Thursday to defend the need for nationwide limits on power plant pollution similar to Maryland's.  The Environmental Protection Agency finalized new rules requiring 79 percent reduction in mercury and cuts in other toxic emissions from power plants beginning in 2015.  But the regulation has come under fire from some power companies and their supporters in Congress.

Maryland has a stake in that political tug-of-war because air pollution knows no boundaries. Emissions from power plants to the west and south drift across the state line.

"Plants from neighboring states will have to clean up as well and will be held to a standard about as strong as Maryland's," according to Peter Altman, climate and clean air campaign director for the NRDC.

Local environmentalists, meanwhile, see reason to worry about future improvements in air quality in the Baltimore area with the sale of the three coal-burning power plants here. Exelon Corp.announced Thursday it had sold them to a subsidiary of Riverstone Holdings, a New York private equity firm, as part of its merger deal with Baltimore-based Constellation Energy.

The Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, which is campaigning to reduce coal use because of its air pollution and climate impacts, issued a statement calling on Riverstone to shutter two of the coal plants, H.A. Wagner and C.P. Crane. While the third plant sold, Brandon Shores, had emission "scrubbers" installed, they do not have the most rigorous pollution-control equipment to curb harmfule sulfur dioxide emissions, the group said.

The Sierra chapter noted that Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, where the two plants are located, still get failing grades on air quality from the American Lung Association.

The release also noted that another subsidiary of Riverstone Holdings has been sued by environmental groups for allowing mountaintop coal mining to degrade streams in southwest Virginia.

“We hope Riverstone will prove to be a good neighbor here in Baltimore by caring for the health and safety of our families," said Christine Hill, conservation representative for the Maryland Sierra Club. "It’s time to retire these aging, dirty coal plants and begin the work of cleaning up our air and transitioning Baltimore to a clean, healthy and prosperous energy economy that’s built to last.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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