Breathing easier [Editorial]

The American Lung Association's latest ranking for U.S. cities with the worst air pollution rates the Baltimore-Washington area ninth worst for ground-level ozone, exceeded only by smog-shrouded regions of California and Texas. No other community on the East Coast comes close, not New York, not Boston, not Philadelphia.

In this report card, Baltimore gets an "F," but the consequences are far worse than mere failure. Ground-level ozone, created when emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes interact with sunlight, is extremely hazardous to human health. Breathing problems, asthma attacks, heart attacks and even premature death have been linked to ozone exposure.


The region has made progress in recent years in reducing the number of high-alert days (when seniors, youngsters and those with medical conditions are warned to stay indoors under the "Code Red" alert), but local pollution-fighting efforts have been stymied by one inconvenient fact: At least half the ozone in Maryland blows in from outside the state.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court offered a solution. By a 6-2 vote, it reinstated the so-called "good neighbor rule," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations that protect downwind states like Maryland from drifting air pollution that starts with aging coal-fired power plants but can travel hundreds of miles. The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule was actually developed three years ago but was subsequently suspended by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which claimed the EPA had overstepped its authority.


It's not too big a stretch to suggest that the residents of the Free State just got an extension on our collective life span not unlike kicking a statewide cigarette habit. No matter how tough Maryland ever got on local sources of air pollution, such a life-saving reduction depended on the EPA exercising its broader authority under the Clean Air Act.

Such a slam-dunk decision may have surprised some observers. But despite their pro-business outlook, the justices have shown considerable respect for EPA authority in the past, most famously upholding the agency's right to curb greenhouse gases in a landmark 2007 case, Massachusetts v. EPA. As much as Republicans have tried to portray the agency under President Barack Obama as having run amok, its record for following the law (and winning in the nation's highest court) in recent years is quite good.

Critics of the cross-state rule were correct on one matter, however. It's likely to raise the cost of electricity in the Midwest. Many coal-burning plants will have to install pollution controls or cease operations entirely if that's not cost-effective, actions that will have obvious and unavoidable consequences for the price of electricity.

But adding a few pennies per kilowatt hour to energy customers in Ohio, Texas or Indiana in order to reduce medical costs for the family living in Parkville, Aberdeen or Federal Hill, let alone lengthen lives all along the East Coast, is a welcome trade-off. The EPA estimates that it actually produces a net savings, a point not lost on a majority of the court.

The impact of the decision on the coal industry is unclear. The increasing popularity of less-polluting natural gas as a fuel source — made possible by the exploitation of large domestic shale deposits by hydraulic fracturing — is already having an effect on the domestic market. Electricity suppliers have been gravitating away from coal and toward natural gas, making the cross-state rule somewhat less onerous than it appeared to be in 2011.

Still, the decision does underscore the importance of federal regulatory authority in dealing with pollution, which doesn't necessarily adhere to political boundaries whether it wafts through the air or rolls along a stream or river. That's a message we can only hope gets through to the American Farm Bureau Federation and others who continue to pursue unwelcome litigation intended to halt the EPA's Chesapeake Bay clean-up efforts.

The Farm Bureau's lawsuit to overturn the EPA "blueprint" or "diet" of pollution limits covering Maryland and other states in the bay watershed lost in U.S. District Court last fall but is expected to be heard on appeal in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia this summer. Like the air pollution case, it appears driven mostly by out-of-state plaintiffs who can only see their short-term costs, not the long-term benefits of a cleaner environment.

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