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Environmentalists promise to fight utility deregulation and new roads


Utility deregulation and highway construction might appear to be purely checkbook issues at first glance, but they carry hidden environmental costs, state conservationists warned at their fifth annual environmental legislative summit in Annapolis yesterday.

Environmentalists from more than a dozen groups vowed to fight electric utility deregulation and a proposal to raise taxes to pay for new roads this year -- unless the measures include safeguards to prevent Maryland's high levels of air pollution from increasing further.

The Baltimore area's air was classified as unhealthy to breathe one of every three days this summer, under Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, said Dan Pontious, executive director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. About 40 percent of the area's smog came from coal-burning power plants and much of the rest came from cars.

Pontious and others said the problems could get worse if more roads are built and restrictions on power plants are loosened. "There's an awful lot of money at stake and a lot of pollution at stake," he said.

Utility deregulation could add to pollution because Maryland's aging coal-fired power plants were exempted from taking costly steps to reduce their emissions when the federal Clean Air Act was passed in the 1970s. If these plants with their inexpensive fuel are more heavily used after deregulation, more choking smog would be the result, Pontious said.

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council's 20-year road construction plans project that the area's roads will be more crowded in the year 2020 than they are now, despite an estimated $16 billion worth of highway construction over the next 20 years, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins of 1,000 Friends of Maryland.

"More roads require more roads require more cars," Schmidt-Perkins said. "It's a cycle we can't afford and it has to stop."

The state has budgeted almost a billion dollars for road, transit and transportation projects in recent years. Gov. Parris N. Glendening and some legislators are weighing an increase in the state's 23.5 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax.

"Before we spend more money on a gas tax, we have to have a transportation plan that works," Schmidt-Perkins said.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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