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Air pollution limits tightened on Baltimore incinerator

The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered air pollution limits tightened on a Baltimore trash-to-energy incinerator after finding the state improperly relaxed them and did not require adequate monitoring of the plant's toxic emissions.

Siding with environmentalists who had complained that the state was going easy on a major polluter, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson directed the Maryland Department of the Environment to revise the permit it had issued the RESCO incinerator in South Baltimore. The facility, owned by Wheelabrator Techologies, burns trash from Baltimore and Baltimore County.

MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus said state regulators would comply with the EPA's order to revise the incinerator's permit.

Three environmental groups had complained that the state had weakened limits on the amount of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide RESCO could release into the air. The groups — the Environmental Integrity Project, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and Clean Water Action — originally had sued the state in January 2009, complaining it was not being strict enough on pollution from the incinerator. They appealed to the EPA after the state issued the permit with the disputed provisions anyway.

In renewing the incinerator's five-year pollution permit, state regulators had changed the facility's emissions limits on carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide from hourly maximums to averages calculated over 24 hours. The change allows brief, intense bursts of pollution that could harm people, contended Jennifer Peterson, an attorney for the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project.

In the open air, carbon monoxide can cause chest pain and other health threats for those with heart disease, while nitrogen dioxide can contribute to other forms of pollution that cause respiratory problems.

The groups also objected that the state did not require the incinerator to test often enough for other toxic pollutants, including mercury, lead and fine particles. Mercury and lead can cause brain and nerve damage, while particles can affect lungs and the heart.

RESCO only had to test its smokestack once a year under the state permit. But environmentalists argued — and the EPA agreed — that the facility needed to be monitored more often, if not continuously, because its emissions could vary depending on the trash it burns. Peterson, the environmental group's attorney, contended that state and federal regulators rarely require adequate monitoring of toxic pollutants from large industrial facilties like RESCO.

Though there are 129 industrial facilities in Maryland with air pollution permits like RESCO's, Stoltzfus said state officials believe the problems the EPA found are limited to that one facility.

A Wheelabrator spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.


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