A House committee is scheduled to hear testimony today on a bill that would impose an air pollution regulation that Gov. Larry Hogan withdrew when he took office.
The bill, sponsored by Del. Dana Stein, would require Maryland's coal-burning power plants to curb smog-forming emissions of nitrogen oxide. It will be taken up by the House Economic Matters Committee.
The regulation, drawn up by the Maryland Department of the Environment after more than a year of deliberation and negotiation with plant owners, was set to take effect when Hogan pulled it back. It was one of several rules finalized or proposed in the waning weeks of the O'Malley administration that the new governor said he wanted to review.
Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he put the bill in because he didn't want to delay action to reduce unhealthful levels of smog, or ground-level ozone pollution.
"A large majority of Marylanders breathe in unclean air," he said, with smog levels that exceed standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"The state is overdue in response to an EPA deadline to clean up our coal fired power plants," Stein added.
Environmentalists strongly backed the O'Malley administration's move to reduce coal plants' nitrogen oxide emissions, saying it would make air in Baltimore and Washington healthier to breathe. Although air quality has improved considerably in the past three decades, ozone levels continue to pose health risks at times across much of the state.
"The dirty air is not just uncomfortable - it's truly life-shortening," said Sara Via, with Chesapeake chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Ozone, when inhaled, inflames lung tissue and can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate other breathing problems. Studies find increased emergency room visits and hospital admissions on days when ozone levels are high, and research also indicates it's a factor in causing premature deaths.
Regulators proposed requiring four of the state's older coal plants to begin reducing smog-forming emissions next year and achieve full compliance by 2020. Power plant owners objected, warning having to install pollution controls could raise electricity costs or even force them to shut down.
Raven Power, owner of the C.P. Crane and H.A. Wagner plants in the Baltimore area, dropped its objection after regulators modified the regulation to extend the deadline for compliance. But NRG, owner of two Washington area plants, continued to oppose the rule.
Jay Apperson, spokesman for the state environmental agency, said the rule remains under review.
"MDE is committed to moving forward quickly with a regulation that either adopts the most recent proposal or makes revisions and clarifications that result in comparable or greater pollutant reduction benefits," Apperson said in an email.
But Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, said with nothing forthcoming from the agency so far, advocates favor legislative action now.
"This issue is too critical and too urgent to wait for the governor to figure out if he's going to do anything about air polllution," Tulkin said.
UPDATE: Spokesmen for NRG and a union official representing its workforce told the House Economic Matters Committee Thursday that the legislation would force the plants' closure and the loss of 500 jobs.
NRG's Steve Arabia said the company cannot afford to convert the plants to burn less-polluting natural gas, nor can it handle the expense of installing pollution controls. He and another company representative urged lawmakers to let them continue to try to convince state regulators to adopt a less rigid emissions rule, which could keep the plants operating.