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Lawmakers lift hold on Hogan smog rule

A clash between lawmakers and the Hogan administration over curbing smog in Maryland ended abruptly Thursday as committee leaders stopped blocking limits on coal-burning power plants that they had asserted were weak.

In a one-sentence letter to Environment Secretary Benjamin H. Grumbles, the heads of the General Assembly's Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee released the hold they had placed on the smog rule just a few days earlier, questioning its strength.

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Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, the panel's co-chairman, said he and Sen. Roger Manno, a Montgomery County Democrat, had held up the rule only so they could schedule a hearing to air concerns about the rule that were raised by a third-party review the committee had requested.

Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said by email Thursday night that the hearing "will be announced shortly." He offered no further comment.

Hogan spokesman Matthew A. Clark said he was unaware of any new information the administration had provided committee leaders since they held up the regulation.

"We defended our regulation and said we thought [it was] balanced and had pretty broad support," Clark said.

In announcing the hold Monday, Rosenberg and Manno said the review by a former Environmental Protection Agency official found the rule proposed by the Hogan administration in September would not protect public health as well as a smog rule drawn up by former Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Gov. Larry Hogan withdrew O'Malley's rule in January before it could take effect.

Rosenberg said Monday that he and Manno were holding up the regulation so the Maryland Department of the Environment could respond to the analysis by Bruce Buckheit, a former chief of air pollution enforcement at the EPA.

Buckheit concluded that the Hogan regulation "requires minimal, if any, additional overall emissions reductions" beyond those already achieved.

Buckheit's review was commissioned by the committee, but he has been a paid consultant to the Sierra Club on other issues, and the environmental group suggested him to the panel leaders. The Sierra Club and Physicians for Social Responsibility are suing the Hogan administration over its withdrawal of the O'Malley smog rule.

The original rule, approved in the final days of the O'Malley administration, aimed to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-burning plants on hot summer days, when smog — and electricity generation — are at their highest levels.

It would have given four 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.

Pennsylvania-based Talen Energy, owner of the C.P. Crane and H.A. Wagner plants in Baltimore, agreed to the O'Malley rule. (Talen has since announced it is selling Crane to another company.)

But New Jersey-based energy company NRG said the requirements were unnecessary and too stringent, and warned it would close its Dickerson and Chalk Point plants and lay off hundreds.

Hogan pulled the O'Malley rule within hours of taking office and directed regulators to take another look in light of NRG's complaints.

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The Hogan rule would give power plants more flexibility in deciding how to meet smog limits. Companies with several plants, such as NRG, could average emissions from facilities with state-of-the-art pollution controls along with those from older facilities lacking similar equipment.

Grumbles has said the health protections of the new rule would be "equal to or greater than those in the previously proposed regulations."

The rule's supporters include not only NRG, but also the labor union that represents the company's plant workforce — the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

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