Lawmakers, environmentalists push Hogan administration for tougher pollution rules

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Environmentalists and nearly 50 state Democrats have urged the Hogan administration to immediately impose tougher water pollution standards on coal-fired power plants, rather than wait for rules delayed by the Trump administration.

Water pollution permits for three of the state’s seven coal-fired plants are up for renewal, and Maryland initially proposed permits that wouldn’t require the power plants to immediately install technology that would significantly reduce heavy metals discharged into Maryland waterways.

Rules issued by the Obama administration would have required those power plants to install technology next year to reduce the amount of selenium, arsenic, mercury and lead released in their waste water.

Currently, all three power plants up for renewal — the Morgantown, Dickerson and Chalk Point generating stations — discharge more selenium and arsenic than would have been allowed under the Obama-era rules, according to an analysis by the Sierra Club.

President Trump tried to repeal the so-called “Effluent Limit Guidelines” that required all plants to use the “best available technology” by 2018 to reduce the heavy metals released into the water. The EPA then delayed the effective date of those rules. After that move was challenged in federal court, where it remains under review, the EPA said it plans to revise the rules.

The letter to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan written by a group of environmentalists and 49 Democratic state lawmakers urged him to act sooner than the federal government requires.

“There are simple and affordable ways for coal plants to reduce or eliminate their toxic waste, and many coal plants across the country have already done so,” the lawmakers wrote in an Oct. 19 letter obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

“But for the change in the presidency, Maryland's plants would have been required to make similar changes to reduce excessive amounts of cancer-causing toxins from flowing unchecked into our waterways,” they wrote. “We call on you do what’s right for our citizens, our environment and our natural resources.”

Hogan’s administration already has demonstrated a willingness to take on the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump.

In September, Maryland sued the EPA, arguing it had not done enough to enforce air-quality laws and that the federal government was letting pollution from coal-powered plants in five other states degrade air quality here.

That lawsuit, which is pending, dealt with enforcement of the federal Clean Air Act. The re-permitting of coal plants under discussion in Maryland deals with rules under the federal Clean Water Act.

Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, said Maryland’s coal power plants eventually will have to use that best available technology to reduce heavy metals flowing into the water.

The state has proposed they do so by the deadline in current federal guidelines — between 2020 and 2023 — rather than the 2018 deadline proposed under the Obama-era rules now being reconsidered.

“The department will certainly clarify the permits to be unequivocally clear that the permits will be in full compliance with the rule, including the rule’s applicable compliance deadline,” Grumbles said in a statement.

Grumbles said the state has gone after some of these coal-powered plants aggressively for allegedly discharging too much pollution.

He said the state entered into a settlement with the owner of Chalk Point and Dickerson electric generating stations over the matter. The deal includes a $1 million penalty to be paid by NRG Energy and for the company to install improved technology at the plants to prevent pollution.

Democratic Del. David Moon of Montgomery County led the effort to get lawmakers to pressure the Hogan administration. He said Thursday he was optimistic that state regulators would be tough about water pollution because Maryland already had proven it would be tough about air pollution from coal-powered plants.

“It gives me hope that they might actually listen to us on this,” Moon said of the administration. “On those areas where the state has the ability to go above and beyond … it's incumbent upon the state to do more.”

A federal review completed during the Obama administration found that coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of toxic water contamination, contributing roughly 30 percent of the pollution in the nation’s waters.

All three power plants up for renewal are owned by NRG, a generation company headquartered in Houston and West Windsor, N.J., with nearly 100 power plants in 18 states.

Chalk Point is in on the banks of the Patuxent River in Prince George’s County. Morgantown is on the banks of the Potomac River in Charles County. Dickerson is also on the banks of the Potomac River, though further north in Montgomery County. Each draw in water and emit wastewater in the process of burning coal for electric energy.

Their current permits to discharge wastewater were issued in 2009, and expired in 2014. The new permits, if approved, would have a five-year term.

ecox@baltsun.com

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