Electric power plants that burn oil or coal in Maryland sent more than 27 million pounds of toxic pollutants into the air in 2009.
That was the fifth-highest total in the nation and a threat to public health, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and reason enough, they say, to urge federal regulators to move forward with a proposal for more stringent emissions standards.
"There's no question that these [standards] are very beneficial to public health, to protecting our children and families, and we should move forward with them as soon as we can," said Dan Lashof, the NRDC's climate center director.
Maryland environmental officials and the state's biggest power producer don't oppose the new standards proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But they say the environmental group's 2009 data for Maryland have been overtaken by events — new emissions controls mandated for 2010 by the state's 2006 Healthy Air Act.
"The numbers are old; they're pre-scrubber at Brandon Shores," said Constellation Energy spokesman Kevin Thornton, referring to pollution-cutting equipment installed at the company's power station in Pasadena.
He said 2010 emissions data will show that newly installed scrubbers at its Brandon Shores and Wagner stations have cut hydrochloric acid emissions from 10 million pounds in 2009 to 1.5 million pounds last year. Hydrofluoric acid releases have fallen from 1.5 million pounds to 310,000 pounds.
Dawn Stoltzfus, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said state-mandated limits on mercury emissions have cut releases from about 1 ton before the legislation to 110 pounds in the most recent four quarters.
"Maryland is definitely one of the leading states fighting for clean air controls," she said. "So it's good to see a report focusing on the issue. But in Maryland's particular case, even though it's well-intentioned, it is misleading because it is based on data from 2009."
The NRDC compiled the numbers from emissions data reported to federal regulators by power plant owners. Its report focuses on pollutants toxic to humans, such as mercury and acid gases, not on greenhouse gases or nitrogen, a key source of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
The environmental group released the data Wednesday to generate public support for the EPA's effort to tighten power plant emissions standards under the Clean Air Act.
The EPA's proposed new Mercury and Air Toxics standards are being opposed by some members of Congress and in the coal industry, seeking to block or delay their implementation. They argue it is another example of overreach by the federal government that will increase energy costs, and hurt power generators, American businesses and families in a time of economic distress.
Supporters argue it's a measure that will ultimately save money by protecting public health.
Lashof said, "The EPA estimates that the reduction of toxic pollution required by the pending standard would save as many as 17,000 lives every year by 2015 and prevent up to 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms. The safeguards would avoid more than 12,000 emergency room and hospital visits and prevent 850,000 lost work days every year."
Constellation Energy is not among the opponents. John Quinn, the company's director of environmental affairs, said, "We've been a public advocate for the EPA on this."
Constellation will likely submit comments to the EPA asking for more flexibility on such issues as what tests are required and how frequently they must be done. But, he added, "We support them on schedule and standards. We think that everybody can get it done. We've already done it."
Electrical generation in Maryland in 2009 represented 91 percent of all industrial emissions of toxic air pollution originating in the state.
More than 13 million pounds — almost 44 percent of all the industrial toxic pollutant emissions in Maryland — came from Constellation Energy's Brandon Shores generating station in northern Anne Arundel County.
Brandon Shores was also listed by the NRDC report as the nation's second-biggest "power plant polluter" in 2009.
Constellation's Thornton said the 2010 numbers for the Brandon Shores and Wagner stations "will be dramatically reduced. I can't predict the rankings."
Maryland ranked 26th among the states for mercury emissions from power plants. The NRDC report notes, however, that Maryland's electric sector mercury rules are now "at least as stringent as EPA's proposed utility air toxics rule."
State environmental officials have long argued that as much as 70 percent of Maryland's air pollution is not generated within its borders. It arrives here from coal-burning power stations located upwind, many of them in the Ohio River Valley.
"We really want them to do more," Stoltzfus said. "We strongly support EPA's proposals to control air pollution. We are also working closely with the northeastern states' regional Ozone Transport Commission to address upwind air pollution."