The Hogan administration's plan for curbing smog-forming pollution from coal-burning power plants cleared its first hurdle Wednesday, winning approval from the state's air-quality advisory council despite complaints from environmentalists and some lawmakers that public health safeguards were weakened at the behest of one energy company.
The 14-member panel, which reviews all proposed air regulations, endorsed the plan after a top state regulator insisted it still would protect the public from harmful pollution even if it had been changed to give power plants more flexibility to comply.
"Personally, I feel it's the toughest [power-plant pollution] cap on the East Coast," said George S. "Tad" Aburn Jr., air management director of the Maryland Department of the Environment.
But a lawyer for the Sierra Club challenged the state regulator's assertion, contending that changes made by regulators would allow 35 percent more pollution on the state's smoggiest days, undermining the goal of ensuring that Marylanders can breathe healthier air.
The council's 7-3 vote, with one abstention, came after more than four hours of deliberation, including emotional appeals from more than 100 people filling the meeting room at MDE headquarters. Environmentalists making up half the audience called for more stringent pollution limits, while power plant workers occupying the other half pleaded for consideration, saying they feared for their jobs.
The draft rule, revised after being withdrawn by Gov. Larry Hogan, would set new limits on nitrogen oxide emissions by coal plants, which are a significant source of smog, or ozone. Inhaling ozone inflames the lungs and bronchial passages, and can trigger asthma attacks.
Though ozone levels have improved considerably since the 1990s, when the Baltimore area had the worst smog in the eastern United States, it remains bad enough at times to pose health risks for vulnerable people, including children, the elderly and those with respiratory problems.
The original rule, approved in the final days of the O'Malley administration, aimed to reduce emissions on hot summer days, when smog — and electricity generation — are both at their highest levels. It would have given the four affected coal plants — two each in the Baltimore and Washington areas — until 2020 to install costly new pollution controls, switch to burning cleaner natural gas or shut down.
Talen Energy, owner of the C.P. Crane and H.A. Wagner plants in Baltimore, agreed to the O'Malley rule. But NRG, which operates plants on the outskirts of Washington, said the requirements were too stringent and unnecessary. It warned that it would close its facilities, putting hundreds out of work. Hogan directed regulators to revisit the rule to see whether NRG's objections could be satisfied without undermining environmental protections.
Last week, regulators released a draft rule that said plants could be deemed in compliance without having to install new controls or switch fuels if the average or total emissions from all of a company's power-generating facilities could meet new 24-hour or 30-day limits. Industry executives welcomed the change but said it did not go far enough to ensure that they could keep their plants running.
At NRG's request, state regulators further adjusted the plan this week by easing a key daily emissions limit. MDE's Aburn described the change as slight, contending that the latest revision remains in line with other states' emission limits.
Walter Stone, an NRG vice president, said the revisions "give us the flexibility we need," though he added that the emission limits are still "on the edge of what we can achieve economically."
An NRG spokesman declined later to say what, if anything, the company might have to do to meet those limits at its two affected plants — Chalk Point in Prince George's County and Dickerson in Montgomery County.
Industry executives have said new pollution controls could cost $40 million to $200 million per plant, too much for plants such as these that only generate electricity on days when demand is particularly high.
Aburn suggested that plant operators might retrofit to burn gas as well as coal, or temporarily idle one polluting facility to keep average emissions within overall limits. Despite changes made to satisfy NRG, he contended that the regulation would do a better job of protecting vulnerable people from harmful ozone levels than the O'Malley version.
Josh Berman, a lawyer for the Sierra Club, disagreed. He said regulators were rushing to get the revised rule in place, giving the council less than a week to study it. The Maryland Sierra Club and Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility have filed suit, contending that Hogan acted illegally in withdrawing the original power plant rule after it had been finalized under O'Malley.
Staff members for three Democratic lawmakers, two of them co-chairmen of the General Assembly's committee overseeing regulations, also expressed concern that the power plant rule had been watered down.
Some advisory council members seemed perplexed, noting that they had approved the O'Malley regulation less than a year ago. Ross Salawitch, a chemist specializing in air pollution at the University of Maryland, said he fears there is too much "wiggle room" in the revised regulation.
And while most of Maryland's ozone comes from power plants out of state, Salawitch questioned how Maryland officials could press for tighter pollution controls elsewhere if they do not demand them of in-state facilities.
Others noted that even as the state is acting to adopt this smog limit, the Environmental Protection Agency is moving this fall to require even lower levels of ozone, citing voluminous scientific evidence that it can damage human health below the level now deemed safe.
John Quinn, the advisory panel's chairman and state affairs director for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., asked whether more pollution curbs could be placed on power plants after the EPA acts. When told that they could be, Quinn said he was satisfied and called the vote.
Maryland Secretary of the Environment Benjamin H. Grumbles, who has pledged to have the new rule in place by year's end, said after the vote that "we're ... pushing power plants to be cleaner and greener without risking affordability and reliability for consumers.
"That's not going to make everybody happy," he added, "but we're not focused on winning popularity contests."