Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he needs time to examine a Bush administration decision that many believe could lead to increased air pollution in Maryland, deliberations that will be monitored closely by activists who worry about the governor's environmental policies.
Ehrlich said yesterday that Maryland will not immediately join a lawsuit being prepared by neighboring states troubled by changes to air quality rules announced by the federal government this week.
"We're nontraditional. We read the ruling first," Ehrlich said in an interview.
The change allows owners of coal-burning power plants and other industrial facilities to make substantial renovations without installing the latest pollution controls. Prevailing winds carry pollutants from plants in the Midwest into Maryland and other Eastern states.
Ehrlich said that air pollution in Maryland "clearly ... is an issue that concerns us a great deal."
He is not troubled, he said, by the prospect of filing legal action against the Bush administration. Ehrlich considers himself an ally of the president, and stayed with Bush at Camp David this year.
"We don't agree 100 percent of the time," the governor said, adding that he would keep the interests of Marylanders paramount.
Previous Democratic governors have rapidly authorized the state attorney general to participate in legal actions over clean-air issues. Ehrlich's hesitancy is an ominous signal to environmental leaders worried about the administration's evolving policies.
Ehrlich's first choice for state environmental secretary, a former corporate lawyer with the Chrysler Corp., was rejected by the Senate.
He has indicated that the Smart Growth land-use planning principles of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening will receive far less attention.
"They need to look at the residents in the state of Maryland, and what it means for them, in terms of health, in terms of asthma, in terms of addressing the ozone problem," said Terry Harris, president of the Baltimore-based Cleanup Coalition, a not-for-profit organization that works on pollution issues.
"Is it a litmus test? I don't know, but the impact on Maryland makes it real clear what they should be doing," Harris said.
Scientists say that coal burned by power plants produces nitrogen and other toxins that are linked to asthma, other breathing difficulties and even deaths. The federal Environmental Protection Agency clarified regulations this week covering when and how plants must install pollution controls to limit those toxins.
Industry representatives said they have been dissuaded from making upgrades to their power plants because the old rule required them to include the expensive pollution controls in their improvements.
Under the revision, plants can spend up to 20 percent of the value of their equipment on renovations without installing the pollution controls.
Whether Ehrlich decides to fight the rules -- as Republican governors in New York and other states appear willing to do -- will help define his administration, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, head of 1,000 Friends of Maryland.
"His highway policy is pretty bad," she said. "We're concerned over some steps that he's taking, like on transportation."
Acting state environmental secretary Kendl P. Philbrick said yesterday that he is still digesting the 170-plus-page federal rule change, and will brief the governor next week.
"We are very troubled about what it is going to do to the air in Maryland, and we will end up doing something," Philbrick said. "We have to review the rules, review the documents. We can then make a very informed, calm decision. It's not something that needs to be done overnight."
A spokesman for Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. declined to comment yesterday on whether his office had the authority to pursue legal action without the governor's consent.