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Curbs on upwind pollution sought

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Maryland joined seven other Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states Monday in asking for federal help to curb air pollution from beyond their borders, saying their residents' health and their economies are being hurt by smog-forming emissions from the Midwest and South.

They petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to require nine "upwind" states — Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia — to join a commission that would require those states to curb pollution from their coal-burning power plants, motor vehicles and industries, which can foul air hundreds of miles away.

"For the sake of our state and our people, we need upwind states to act more aggressively to reduce the pollutants that they put in the air from their own states," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement taped before he left last week for a trade trip to Latin and South America.

Also petitioning the EPA are Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

On summer days when smog makes Maryland's air unhealthy to breathe, as much as 70 percent of the ozone-forming pollution comes from out of state, according to George S. "Tad" Aburn Jr., chief of air management at the state Department of the Environment. Air samples taken on the state's border often contain ozone levels above the federal health standard, he said.

Ozone pollution, or smog, can irritate the respiratory system, causing coughing, sore throat and chest pains. It also can aggravate asthma and other chronic lung diseases, and it has been linked to premature deaths.

Maryland and other states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have taken steps over the past 20 years to curtail locally generated pollution, imposing controls on power plants and industries while also requiring cleaner-burning fuel and regular checks of vehicles' tailpipe exhaust.

But air in the region remains unhealthy at times in the summer, and officials say they're finding it increasingly costly and difficult to make further improvements when such a large share of the problem comes from beyond their borders. Reducing emissions in states like Maryland can cost upward of $10,000 per ton of pollution removed from the air, Aburn said, while putting controls on relatively unregulated power plants in the South and Midwest could cost as little as $500 per ton.

"We simply cannot meet the standard unless something happens upwind of us," said Aburn.

If EPA grants the petition, the nine Midwest and Southern states would be added to the "Ozone Transport Region," created under 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act to address summertime smog in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Twelve states from Maine to Virginia plus the District of Columbia now work jointly through an interstate commission to lower pollution across their two regions, though Virginia only limits emissions in its Washington suburbs, not the whole state.

The petition comes a day before the U.S. Supreme Court is to review EPA's "Cross-State Air Pollution Rule," under which the federal agency would curb power plant emissions that contribute to unhealthy air in states on the receiving end. A lower court vacated EPA's regulation, which had been challenged by power plants and state officials in the South and Midwest. A similar EPA rule-making years earlier was also struck down by courts.

The petitioning states have all filed legal briefs in support of EPA's rule-making but say the action they're now seeking would go further. The EPA rule would only require emission curbs sufficient to reduce ozone levels to 85 parts per billion, but the states want reductions to meet the current federal health standard of 75 parts per billion.

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency would review and respond to the petition.

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington environmental lobby, called the petition a potential "game changer."

The EPA has been thwarted by court challenges for nearly a decade in addressing interstate air pollution, he noted. O'Donnell predicted that states targeted by the petition, especially coal-producing Kentucky and West Virginia, would fight it. But he said the move could help clean up the Chesapeake Bay as well, because fallout of air pollution from power plants and vehicles contributes to the estuary's algae blooms and dead zones.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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