Responding to residents worried that the air near their homes isn't safe to breathe, Maryland environment officials say they hope to install an air-quality monitor near a coal power plant in Anne Arundel County.
The Maryland Department of the Environment is exploring whether the federal government or the owner of the H.A.Wagner Generating Station can pay for the equipment, the agency's secretary wrote Monday in a letter to the Greater Pasadena Council.
Some Pasadena residents became alarmed last summer when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said conditions around the plant over the past three years did not meet a federal standard for sulfur dioxide pollution. The EPA required the state and plant owner to collaborate on a plan to clean the emissions.
Gov. Larry Hogan's administration had challenged the finding, saying the state's models suggest the air is meeting federal pollution standards.
That led the Pasadena residents to request that an air monitor be installed to settle the dispute.
"It may be an informed guess, but it's still a guess," Allan Straughan, chairman of the Pasadena council, said of the existing data. "It's a calculated number, not an observed number."
He said the state's willingness to pursue the project was encouraging.
"It sounds like they're heading in the right direction," Straughan said. He had not yet seen the letter from Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles, which the department provided to The Baltimore Sun.
Grumbles wrote that the state is focused on working with the plant to ensure it's in compliance, but added that installing a monitor to gather more precise data is worthwhile.
"The Department recognizes the fact that residents of Pasadena and elsewhere would want an absolute assurance that air quality is not harmful to their health," he wrote.
He said the state is working with the EPA to determine if some of the several million dollars in federal money allocated to local air quality research could go toward the Wagner monitoring equipment, or if other federal money is available.
Grumbles also said the state asked Raven Power, the plant's owner, to consider voluntarily installing a monitor at or near the plant.
A spokesman for Talen Energy, parent company of Raven Power, said the company is "in discussions" about the state's request and declined to comment further.
EPA's models suggest unhealthy levels of sulfur dioxide waft from the plant across northern Anne Arundel County and southern Baltimore County.
The EPA declared July 1 that parts of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties within 17 miles of the Wagner plant are exceeding allowed sulfur dioxide levels. The agency said it did not have enough information to determine if the air-quality standard is being met in Baltimore, though the city also is within the 17-mile radius.
The agency considers it a public health risk if power plants or industrial facilities too often average more than 75 parts per billion of sulfur dioxide emissions within an hour. The pollutant can cause lung damage linked to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.
The EPA used three years' worth of data from the plant and data on weather conditions, among other factors, to model projections of air quality over that period. Both the EPA and the Sierra Club, which had pressed the EPA to act, estimated the Wagner plant exceeds that limit at least four times a year.
EPA officials said that typically, the agency uses monitoring data, not models, to enforce air pollution regulations.
Maryland officials have meanwhile argued that monitoring data would show that the air around the plant is meeting the sulfur dioxide standards.
The closest air measurements to the Wagner plant are taken in Essex; the next closest come from upwind, near Washington.
EPA officials already advised the Pasadena group it was up to the state whether to install a monitor.
"We supply [states] funding every year that they can use specifically for monitoring," EPA spokesman Roy Seneca said. "It's up to them to decide where they want to do that monitoring."
State lawmakers whose districts include the plant were skeptical of efforts to increase monitoring.
"MDE needs to determine whether [money] would be better spent with a monitoring device or on some type of environmental improvement — they're the professionals that are making that recommendation," said House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, a Republican from Pasadena.
State Sen. Bryan Simonaire, also a Republican from Pasadena, said he would "fight passionately" for constituents' health but that "there is limited money and you just can't spend uncontrollable amounts of money without prioritizing it."
"We can monitor until the cows come in, but it's the actions of the last few years that are actually reducing the pollution in our area," Simonaire said.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Amanda Yeager contributed to this article.