State lawmakers gave their reluctant approval Friday to a watered-down plan by the Hogan administration to curb smog-forming air pollution from Maryland's coal-fired power plants.
While clearing the way for modest emission reductions this summer, members of the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee said they were "extremely concerned" by the "lack of details and continued delays" in the administration's proposal to require even deeper, long-term cuts in power plant pollution.
"We are already overdue in setting this important process in motion," wrote the committee's co-chairmen, Baltimore Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg and Montgomery County Sen. Roger Manno, both Democrats.
They noted that 5 million Marylanders live in areas with unhealthy levels of summertime smog and that the state is nearly a year late in meeting a federal deadline to come up with a plan for reducing power plant pollution.
In the waning days of former Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration, the Maryland Department of the Environment adopted a rule welcomed by environmentalists that would have required coal-burning power plants to curb emissions of nitrogen oxide 48 percent by 2020. A byproduct of burning coal, nitrogen oxide helps form smog or ozone pollution, which can inflame airways and trigger or aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions.
The rule would have required power plants to install new, more efficient pollution control equipment — at an estimated cost of $40 million to $200 million per facility — switch to cleaner-burning natural gas, or shut down.
Raven Power, which owns two Baltimore-area plants affected by the rule, accepted the mandate. But NRG, the New Jersey-based owner of two Washington-area plants, objected, saying it would be forced to shutter its facilities, laying off hundreds of workers.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who ran on a platform to make the state more business-friendly, promptly withdrew the O'Malley regulation for further review.
Three months later, the state environment department proposed an emergency rule calling for the plants to maximize their existing pollution controls for now. State regulators, however, said they planned to reconsider what power plants would have to do in future years to make deeper emission reductions.
While vowing to work over the next few months to forge a regulation acceptable both to environmentalists and all power plant operators, new Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said, "We are absolutely committed to ensuring that those controls are as strong as or more protective than the package that greeted us when we came into office in January."
The Maryland Sierra Club and Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility have notified the Hogan administration they intend to sue unless it reinstates the O'Malley pollution regulation. Sierra Club director Josh Tulkin said Friday that the legislative approval of the emergency rule does not alter the groups' stance.