Md. air rules spark debate Proposal would ease permit process for industrial emissions; Bethlehem Steel to benefit; Critics charge change amounts to 'right to pollute'


Maryland regulators are proposing controversial rules that would make it easier for smokestack industries to get permits for emissions into the air, prompting charges from environmentalists that they are creating a "right to pollute."

The draft regulations would guarantee that Maryland businesses that have shut down industrial facilities can receive credit for the pollution those plants did not emit as a result.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the rules would be Bethlehem Steel Corp., which could be given permits for future pollution based on its 1991 shutdown of a troubled coke oven at Sparrows Point.

The proposed rules, which have been the subject of behind-the-scenes lobbying for months, were presented by the Maryland Department of the Environment to its Air Quality Control Advisory Council last night in Baltimore. Citing unresolved questions and a need for further consultations, the panel postponed a vote on a recommendation until July 23.

Environmentalists say the regulations would set back the goal of achieving clean air in the heavily polluted Baltimore area by 2005.

"They are the equivalent of a one-year delay," said Glen Besa, regional representative of the Sierra Club. "The people of Maryland have waited long enough for clean air and we shouldn't have to wait any longer."

But business leaders say the changes simply bring Maryland into conformity with the federal Clean Air Act of 1990,which allows states to set up a program for trading credits for pollution permits. "The Clean Air Act recognizes that there should always be a way for more economic development," said Jonas Jacobson, director of environmental law for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

Some environmentalists charge that at least one of the rules was developed specifically to help Bethlehem Steel.

In a statement issued yesterday, a Bethlehem executive said the Maryland rules would be similar to those the company operates under in Pennsylvania and other states.

Bethlehem Steel reacts

"An emissions banking program is critical for Bethlehem Steel to continue its modernization efforts at the Sparrows Point division and remain a significant contributor to Maryland's economy," said the statement attributed to Gus Moffitt, vice president for administration. "It will provide similar benefits to other large and small businesses that are planning to relocate or expand operations in Maryland."

The steel company declined yesterday to discuss details of its modernization plans or to say whether it needed the new environmental rules to operate a $300 million cold rolling mill that it announced last year would be built at its Sparrows Point plant.

But Andy Spitzler, a spokesman for the Department of Business and Economic Development, said the state's understanding is that the company will not need the program for the cold rolling mill.

The proposed regulations would establish a system under which companies can "bank" credits for reducing pollution -- whether by adopting new pollution-control technology or simply by shutting down operations. The companies could use the credits to qualify for future pollution permits or sell them to other companies.

The credits for using pollution-control technology to reduce emissions beyond the requirements are not controversial. But environmentalists object strongly to the practice of awarding companies credit for shutting down operations, sometimes for reasons that have little do with pollution control.

Clean-air advocates have singled out for criticism a proposed rule that would honor pollution credits for plants closed as far back as 1991. Federal law permits but does not require states to cut off credits to plants that have been closed for two years.

Del. Leon G. Billings, one of the leading environmentalists in the General Assembly, charged that regulators are proposing the rule almost entirely for the benefit of Bethlehem Steel. The rule would let the company receive pollution credits for its Sparrows Point coke oven, which it shut down seven years ago after being cited repeatedly for pollution violations.

"Beth Steel is not only saying they have the right to pollute but that they own that right and can sell that right -- and that's wrong," said Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Reason for rules change

Merrilyn Zaw-Mon, air and radiation management administrator for the Maryland Environment Department, denied the effective date was adopted to accommodate Bethlehem. She said the rules were made retroactive to 1991 because the federal law established 1990 as the base year for setting standards.

But Del. Ron Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said the 1991 date was "absolutely" intended to make Bethlehem eligible for the credits. He said the rules change is a legitimate effort to encourage the company to expand its Sparrows Point operations.

Guns, a conservative Cecil County Democrat who has pressed regulators to speed up the rule-making process, accused Billings of making the steel company the "scapegoat" for a policy change with much broader implications. He said the so-called "right to pollute" was established in federal law as a realistic concession to the need to continue economic growth.

More flexibility needed

"It recognizes the fact that mankind cannot have an activity that doesn't pollute. Everything we do rearranges what Mother Nature puts out there," said Guns, who contends the proposed rules don't go far enough in providing flexibility for business.

Zaw-Mon acknowledged that the department rejected the industry-backed position that credits for shut-down plants should be treated as property rights. She said the rules provide an assurance that the state will honor credits earned by companies that maintain a business presence in Maryland.

"There is no right to emit pollution into the air," she said. "It has to be part of a managed process."

Zaw-Mon said the proposed rules are consistent with federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines and will require new operations to pollute far less than those that earned the credits. She said that if the advisory committee endorses the rules, they would be taken before a legislative oversight committee after a public comment period.

If the controversy doesn't force the department to go back to the drawing board, Maryland Environment Secretary Jane Nishida would likely put the regulations into effect in December, Zaw-Mon said.

Pub Date: 6/12/98

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