Federal environmental regulators have ruled that a coal-burning power plant in northern Anne Arundel County is emitting unhealthy levels of the air pollutant sulfur dioxide, rejecting the Hogan administration's argument that the air is clean enough.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday that areas within about 17 miles of the Herbert A. Wagner Generating Station in Pasadena do not meet an air quality standard, based on estimates of the plant's emissions for the past three years. The pollutant is known to trigger asthma and cause cancer.
Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said officials are "disappointed" and "frustrated" by the decision because it does not reflect recent pollution reductions.
"It is absolutely critical to understand this simple fact: The most recent, most up-to-date analysis shows that the area around the Wagner power plant facility is attaining the federal health-based air quality standard for sulfur dioxide," Grumbles said.
State officials said they have not decided whether to challenge the ruling a second time. When the EPA released dozens of air quality evaluations across the country in February, Maryland was among 10 states to contest findings of excessive pollution.
Under EPA regulations, the state must now require the Wagner plant's owners to make potentially expensive upgrades to clean up emissions.
As little as five minutes of exposure to sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems. Breathing too much of it can also contribute to heart attacks and lung cancer. Poor air quality, including from sulfur dioxide pollution, is blamed for a child asthma rate in Baltimore that is twice as high as national incidence.
The Sierra Club cheered the ruling and called for the 60-year-old Wagner plant to be retired rather than upgraded. The EPA evaluated sulfur dioxide levels around the country because of a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed, demanding that the agency enforce sulfur dioxide standards it established in 2010.
"Despite air quality progress in recent years, the Wagner coal plant still remains a severe source of harmful pollution and continually puts our communities at risk," said David Smedick, who leads the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in Maryland. "We're glad the EPA will hold the state accountable for enforceable pollution reductions from our coal plants."
Todd Martin, a spokesman for Talen Energy, the plant's owner, said in an email that "we will continue to work with [the Maryland Department of the Environment] to meet the regulatory requirements."
It may not take much investment for the plant to meet the standard, said George S. "Tad" Aburn, director of air and radiation management for the MDE.
"We are feeling pretty confident, now that we have to put together a plan, that the controls are already in place," Aburn said.
The plant has invested in technology to limit its emissions of nitrogen dioxide, another pollutant of concern. The new equipment is expected to also reduce sulfur emissions. Wagner also began burning a type of coal with lower sulfur content. The plant has five units that can burn coal, natural gas or oil.
The ruling concerns air quality in parts of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, but technically not Baltimore, even though the city falls within the 17-mile radius around the Wagner plant. That's because there aren't air monitors that measure sulfur dioxide in the city, so the EPA ruled that levels of the pollutant in the city could not be classified.
Grumbles called that exclusion "nonsensical" and said it is proof that the EPA's methods for evaluating sulfur dioxide standards could be improved.
The decisions issued in Maryland and 23 other states on Friday are based on models that retroactively estimate air quality levels for three years based on weather and data on power plant activity — not on actual measurements. That's because in the generation since the EPA had last updated sulfur dioxide standards, the number of monitors that measure the pollutant across the country plummeted.
State officials say if the EPA's process were based on current air quality measurements, the Wagner plant would have fallen within the regulations.
The EPA did make a slight revision based on information the state provided. The agency's initial proposal deemed an area within 22 miles of the Wagner plant out of compliance with the sulfur dioxide standard, but officials reduced that radius by about 5 miles in the final decision.
The area around the Wagner plant is one of four nationwide that the EPA on Friday deemed in violation of sulfur dioxide standards. It said another 41 areas were meeting the standard or expected to be meeting the standard despite a lack of monitoring data, and it could not determine sulfur dioxide levels in 16 areas.