An asthmatic child struggling to breathe on a hot summer day in Baltimore could be the victim of a coal plant in Pennsylvania, Ohio, or another upwind state.
About 70 percent of Baltimore’s ground-level ozone (air pollution) problem is the result of emissions from power plants and vehicles in upwind states, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE).
What is difficult to believe is that 19 power plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky, could be choosing profits over the health of Baltimore residents. These plants already have pollution controls installed, but they don’t fully turn on those controls during hot summer months. As a result, the plants’ owners saved $24 million in one recent summer while their plants’ emissions drifted to Maryland, according to MDE.
Most astonishing of all, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is allowing this to happen, in violation of the Clean Air Act’s “good neighbor” provision, which requires states to ensure that pollution not damage air quality in down-wind states.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) along with other environmental and human health partners, including Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and Physicians for Social Responsibility, have gone to court to prod EPA into action. The State of Maryland recently filed a similar suit.
Forcing the 19 plants to run their pollution controls effectively throughout the summer would not only benefit our family members. It would benefit the Chesapeake Bay. Here’s why.
Emissions from a coal-fired utility plant form a toxic cloud containing carbon dioxide, mercury, soot, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. This cloud can drift for hundreds of miles.
Nitrogen oxides, or NOx for short, turn to ozone in the hot summer. On 14 days this past summer ozone levels were so high a Code Orange Air Quality Alert was issued for the Baltimore area, meaning the air was unhealthy for seniors, children and others with sensitivities.
NOx also is a major and particularly damaging source of nitrogen pollution in the bay. Excess nitrogen fuels algal blooms that result in underwater dead zones where aquatic life can’t breathe.
Emissions from coal plants as far away as the Ohio River Valley to the west and North Carolina to the south can drift to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, and cause harm. The bay is vulnerable to NOx traveling from a massive 570,000 square-mile area called the Chesapeake Bay airshed. Nearly one-third of the nitrogen entering the bay arrives from the airshed.
By not running their controls effectively through the “ozone season” of the summer, the 19 plants sent 39,000 tons of additional NOx to Maryland, according to MDE. All of that adds to the distress of our vulnerable residents and the bay’s marine life.
Maryland petitioned the EPA last year to respond to this problem. And what have we heard? Not a word from the highest environmental agency of the land. So, we have sued to get a response.
It’s important to note that the air we breathe in Maryland is a lot cleaner than it used to be just a decade ago. The level of ozone-causing pollution in Maryland has dropped significantly since then. We can thank the Clean Air Act, and Maryland and federal actions that required stricter emission controls on power plants, vehicles and other sources. Even many utility plants upwind of Maryland have reduced their emissions
But the job is not done. The 19 plants in the five states now must be made to comply with the “good neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act. They need to run their pollution controls throughout the summer.
The trouble is the current federal administration. Cleaning the air and water is just not a priority. The Trump administration, in fact, has promised to roll back or prevent the implementation of clean-air rules that have been responsible for improvements in human and environmental health in Maryland.
CBF and our local and national environmental partners join Maryland in court on this issue, hoping a federal judge will see what the Trump administration, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, refuses to: Government should side with children and fish who can’t breathe, not utility owners looking to pad their bottom line.
Alison Prost is the Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.