The Sierra Club and a doctors group said Wednesday that they plan to sue Gov. Larry Hogan's administration for failing to enforce regulations that compel power plants to limit smog pollution.
The groups submitted a 30-day notice of their intent to file a lawsuit Wednesday, demanding that the Republican governor put into place clean-air protections adopted in the final days of the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.
In his own anti-smog plan released Friday, Hogan required that the state's coal plant operators minimize emissions during the summer smog season, which begins next month, but his administration agreed to reconsider what coal-burning facilities would be required to do over the next five years to reduce harmful emissions even more.
"The safeguards that Hogan is trying to gut say simply, 'If you're going to burn coal in Maryland, you need to install and run modern pollution controls by the end of the decade for the sake of our health,'" said Josh Tulkin, executive director of the Maryland Sierra Club. "With today's suit, we are acting in the interest of all Marylanders, to make sure they can breathe healthier air."
The notice was filed by the Sierra Club and Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, both environmental advocacy groups.
Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the state would respond to the suit "at the appropriate time." He said the agency simply wants to take more time to consider future regulations and that the rules would be as tough or tougher than O'Malley sought.
"The clean-air regulations proposed in the emergency action are the same as the earlier proposal in terms of requirements for the power plants for 2015, and they provide the immediate public health benefits of protecting Marylanders from breathing unhealthy levels of ozone air pollution," Apperson said. "The Department of the Environment has initiated a process to determine the best approach to ensure longer-term air pollution reductions while promoting a healthy and sustainable economy. The public health protections associated with these long-term emissions reductions will be equal to or greater than those in the previously proposed regulations."
The regulations favored by the Sierra Club were negotiated over a yearlong process that included input from environmentalists, public health advocates and power plant owners.
The rules "would have resulted in fewer new cases of asthma in children, fewer heart attacks in adults and fewer deaths from respiratory illness," said Dr. Gwen DuBois, an internist at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore and a member of the board of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The regulations at issue would have required the state's coal-burning power plants to consistently run the expensive emissions controls that they have already installed. The controls curb the amount of the smog-forming pollutant nitrogen oxide that escapes from the power plants but are not always used, according to the Sierra Club.
The regulations also would have required the plants that do not yet have the controls to install them, switch to a cleaner-burning fuel or close altogether. The plants without controls are often smaller and run only on days of peak electricity demand — which also tend to be the worst days for smog, according to the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club insists that the regulations went into effect in January, but the Hogan administration says they never took effect because they were not published in the Maryland Register, a legal publication that prints information about regulations. The Sierra Club said the Hogan administration is wrong and is hoping a judge will order the state to enforce the regulations.
Raven Power, which owns the C.P. Crane plant in Middle River and the Brandon Shores and H.A. Wagner plants in Pasadena, agreed with the regulations. But NRG Energy Services, which has three plants in the Washington area, remained opposed, saying that jobs were at risk.
NRG did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but spokesman David Gaier commended Hogan last week, saying his plan "delivers immediate air quality improvements while protecting Maryland jobs." Its two plants affected by the rule — Chalk Point in Prince George's County and Dickerson in Montgomery County — have about 500 employees
Smog has been a persistent problem that Maryland has been trying to reduce for years.
Byproducts of burning coal, nitrogen oxides help form ground-level ozone, an invisible gas that is commonly called smog when mixed with particulates. When inhaled, ozone can cause burning eyes and throats, coughing and wheezing, asthma attacks and premature deaths.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently determined that for the past three years, ozone levels in the Baltimore area did not exceed current limits. But the EPA is moving to lower the threshold, pointing to research showing that many adults and children still risk illness and premature death from inhaling ozone at current levels.
Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.