Maryland regulators unveiled a plan Tuesday for reducing smog-forming pollution from coal-burning power plants, but it drew criticism from both the industry and environmentalists.
George S. "Tad" Aburn Jr., air-quality chief for the Maryland Department of the Environment, told power plant representatives and environmentalists at the agency's headquarters that the Hogan administration is trying to strike a "delicate balance" between giving the plants more leeway in curbing their emissions while still reducing harmful ozone pollution, or smog.
Aburn said the new plan had been drawn up to provide "equal or greater public-health protection" to an air-quality regulation that was written by Gov. Martin O'Malley and withdrawn earlier this year by Gov. Larry Hogan. But Aburn said it also aimed to fulfill a Hogan pledge "to do it in a way that we have a healthy and sustainable economy in Maryland."
NRG, one of two energy companies affected by the smog reduction plan, had warned it would have to shutter its affected power plants under the O'Malley rule. That regulation would have required four plants — two in the Baltimore area and two NRG plants in the Washington area — to install costly new emission controls, switch to cleaner-burning natural gas, or shut down by 2020.
The new proposal still calls for significant reductions in smog-forming nitrogen oxide. But in addition to the three choices given under the O'Malley rule, the Hogan administration would consider the facilities in compliance if average emissions from all the state's coal burning plants could meet a new 24-hour limit — or, failing that, if they could meet an even lower 30-day average.
An attorney with the Sierra Club said the agency's proposed emission caps aren't as tight as the limit set under the O'Malley rule. Josh Berman, the environmental group's lawyer, said that the new proposal "on its face" doesn't square with the pledge by Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles that the Hogan administration smog rule would be as strong as or stronger than the withdrawn regulation.
The Sierra Club and Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility have sued the Hogan administration for pulling the finalized O'Malley regulation before it could take effect.
Industry representatives called the new proposal a step in the right direction, but said the emission limits were still too restrictive. Walter Stone, a vice president with New Jersey-based NRG, suggested a breakdown at a low-emitting plant might force short-term shutdowns of other facilities to meet the proposed 24-hour pollution cap.
He and other industry officials warned that such a shutdown could jeopardize the electric grid on hot days when air conditioning is straining generation capacity — which is also when ozone or smog levels can be highest.
Talen Energy, which recently acquired the two affected Baltimore area plants, C.P. Crane and H.A. Wagner, had agreed to the O'Malley regulation.
Eugene M. Trisko, a lawyer representing the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group, argued that air quality has improved so much in recent years that Maryland meets the ozone pollution standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency. He urged regulators to hold off on requiring any new emission reductions until the EPA finalizes its plan to lower the acceptable ozone limit. Industry groups are fighting to block the EPA from doing that.
Aburn said pollution has declined, but that unusually cool weather the last two summers has been a big factor in reducing ozone levels. He said more emission curbs are needed to reduce smog under more typically hot summer weather. And he said a lower ozone limit from the EPA would necessitate still further reductions.
Employees of NRG's Chalk Point and Dickerson plants pleaded with state officials not to do anything that would jeopardize their jobs.
Timmy Gardiner, 54, who's worked at Chalk Point for 34 years, said workers live with "a constant dark cloud hanging over our heads" from uncertainty about how environmental regulations will affect the facilities' future.
But Jackie Fullerton, a 25-year-old asthma sufferer from Kingsville in Baltimore County, said after the meeting she believed it was the state's duty to "protect our most vulnerable population," as those with chronic breathing difficulties are highly susceptible to ozone.
Aburn said the agency would be taking public comment on the draft rule through Friday. It would then be presented Aug. 5 to the agency's air-quality advisory commission before being formally proposed as a regulation.