Gov. Larry Hogan is reconsidering his predecessor's attempt to make coal-fired power plants install costly new pollution controls, switch to cleaner-burning fuel or shut down.
Three months after yanking a clear-air rule issued by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration, the Republican governor on Friday unveiled his own smog-fighting plan. It retains a requirement that the state's coal plant operators minimize emissions during the coming summer smog season, which begins next month.
But in a concession to the operator of two power plants, the Maryland Department of the Environment agreed to take another look at what coal-burning facilities would be required to do over the next five years to reduce harmful emissions even more.
Environmentalists denounced the plan, calling it a step backward from regulations adopted after more than a year of negotiations with power plant operators.
"We are deeply troubled by the governor's use of emergency rulemaking authority to cripple crucial health protections that were already finalized and in place before he ever took office," said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club. Tulkin accused Hogan of siding with a "polluting energy company headquartered outside of Maryland rather than thousands of his own constituents."
George S. "Tad" Aburn, the state's chief air regulator, defended the new regulations, saying the initial clampdown would significantly reduce smog levels right away. And while the rule doesn't spell out what plants must do after that to reduce emissions more in future years, Aburn vowed that whatever was settled on would be of "equal or greater public health protection."
A decision on future control measures would be made by early fall, he said.
The emergency regulations must be reviewed by a joint legislative committee before they can take effect, as early as May 2. The committee, dominated by Democrats, could delay implementation of the rule but not stop it.
In the waning days of the O'Malley administration, state regulators had proposed requiring four of the state's older coal plants to begin reducing smog-forming emissions immediately and achieve full compliance by 2020.
Environmentalists and public health advocates strongly backed the move, saying that curbing the facilities' nitrogen-oxide emissions would make Baltimore's and Washington's air healthier to breathe.
Byproducts of burning coal, nitrogen oxides help form ground-level ozone, an invisible gas commonly called smog when mixed with particulates. When inhaled at high enough levels, ozone can cause burning eyes and throats, coughing and wheezing, asthma attacks and even premature deaths.
Raven Power, which has two Baltimore-area plants that fall under the regulations — C.P. Crane in Middle River and H.A. Wagner in Pasadena, had agreed to the O'Malley rule after protracted negotiations.
But NRG, which owns two Washington-area plants, opposed the regulation. The New Jersey-based company warned that new pollution controls could cost up to $200 million per facility, and the rule would force it to shut down its plants, laying off hundreds of workers.
The outgoing O'Malley administration had gone ahead with the rule despite NRG's objections.
But Hogan moved within hours of taking office to block it from taking effect, saying he wanted his staff to review it further.
Legislation was introduced in Annapolis to mandate the proposed pollution reductions, but it failed to get out of committee despite an advertising campaign by environmental and health groups. NRG, its employees and labor officials appeared at a hearing to oppose the legislation, saying jobs were at risk.
NRG spokesman David Gaier commended Hogan, saying his plan "delivers immediate air quality improvements while protecting Maryland jobs." Its two plants affected by the rule — Chalk Point in Prince George's County and Dickerson in Montgomery County — have about 500 employees, he said.
"We look forward to the upcoming stakeholder process that MDE announced to consider options that will provide flexibility necessary to both address environmental issues and maintain hundreds of family-supporting jobs provided by our Maryland generating stations," Gaier said.
Company officials had asked regulators to consider a more "flexible" approach to curbing smog-forming pollution, in which plants would have to meet monthly rather than daily emission targets.
Aburn said regulators had refused to accept that approach because it would allow for higher emissions on hot summer days when ozone pollution could be at its worst — the very conditions the rule was meant to alleviate.
But Aburn said "one of the criticisms we got was we shut the door on new approaches, new technology." He said regulators would give plant operators another chance to propose an alternative, but he said regulators would insist on equivalent or better pollution reductions than O'Malley sought.
Maryland's air has gotten dramatically healthier to breathe in recent years, Aburn pointed out, partly because of cooler weather but also because of reduced pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently determined that for the past three years, ozone levels in the Baltimore area did not exceed the current limit. But the EPA is moving to lower that safety threshold, pointing to research showing that many adults and children with respiratory problems still risk illness and even premature death from inhaling currently acceptable levels.
In Maryland, those at risk include nearly 159,000 children with asthma, and nearly 400,000 adults.
The state's decision to revisit its pollution-control requirements frustrates health advocates, who note that Maryland is already missing a deadline set by the Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down on smog-forming emissions.
"We've already been through a 15-month stakeholder process, where all the stakeholders except NRG agreed to regulations," said Tim Whitehouse of the Chesapeake chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "Maryland needs to modernize its pollution controls on its coal-fired power plants. This is an important health issue the governor needs to address."