Baltimore enters legal fray on mercury pollution rules


Mayor Martin O'Malley announced yesterday that Baltimore will join a dozen states challenging the Bush administration's decision to exempt power plants from tough mercury pollution controls.

"Baltimore residents are spending a lot of money to fix their storm-water system to improve the quality of the Chesapeake Bay," O'Malley said. "We couldn't stand by while President Bush gives coal-burning power plants a free pass."

The city decided to join Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and other states in the legal effort because Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last week blocked efforts by Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. to force stronger air pollution regulations.

Curran is O'Malley's father-in-law and both are Democrats; Ehrlich is a Republican.

Environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised O'Malley for stepping up and showing environmental leadership while Ehrlich sided with industry.

But Republicans and energy industry lobbyists called O'Malley's move political grandstanding, meant to burnish his image as he prepares to run for governor next year.

"I think the mayor should focus on the rising murder rate in Baltimore and leave statewide issues to the people elected to represent the state," said John Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.

O'Malley replied that Kane doesn't have his facts right, saying the city's homicide totals are 20 percent lower than when he took office.

In March, the Environmental Protection Agency exempted power plants from Clean Air Act requirements that all smokestacks be equipped with the best available technology to reduce mercury emissions.

Instead, the EPA is instituting an industry-friendly "cap and trade" system for regulating power plant emissions. This free-market approach allows the plants to keep polluting if they pay fines when they exceed limits.

The Bush administration argues that its system will achieve a 69 percent drop in mercury emissions by 2018. Environmental groups predict that this won't happen and say that EPA could achieve a 90 percent reduction by 2008 if it enforced existing law.

Mercury is a pollutant that rises into the air when coal is burned, falling back down into waterways and causing brain damage in developing infants when their mothers eat too much contaminated fish.

Baltimore would be the first city to join the states challenging the Bush mercury rules, although New York, San Francisco, Washington and other cities have challenged earlier Bush revisions of air regulations.

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised the city for acting while the state is not.

"Mercury is one of the most toxic pollutants out there, and we have fish consumption advisories on every river in Maryland," Coble said.

Ehrlich's office said the governor had no comment.

Julie Oberg, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said that state officials plan to meet with EPA administrators to urge them to strengthen mercury controls.

"Litigation takes a significant amount of time, and we think we can be more productive meeting and talking through these issues instead of going the litigation route," Oberg said.

If that meeting doesn't persuade the EPA to be more aggressive about stopping pollution, Maryland still has the option of filing a legal challenge later, Oberg said.

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