May 16, 2015

Senator Nathan-Pulliam: State ‘smog regulations’ ensure bad air quality

Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, Dana M. Stein, Laurel Peltier

Even though we’ve been enjoying spring’s warmer breezes, the truth is that regardless of your Baltimore city or county ZIP code, we are all breathing contaminated air. This isn’t just Baltimore’s problem. Who knew that 85 percent of Marylanders breathe air that’s never met the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ozone standards? Maryland is woefully behind on updating pollution controls at our ancient, coal-fired electricity plants.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent backpedaling on “smog regulations” ensures that we continue to breathe the worst air on the East Coast. Pulling the on-the-books power plant smog regulations and replacing them with limited “emergency” rules just opens the door for Maryland’s power plant owners to avoid cleaning up their pollution. While he has promised new rules, Hogan has offered no long term smog plan.

We ask Governor Hogan to quickly implement strong nitrogen oxide regulations. Heck, use the ones already developed. Clean up our state’s air so we can all breathe easier.

How bad is the air you and your kids breathe? Though you can’t see it, our air pollution is so bad we top all kinds of lists. We tie D.C. and Cleveland for the highest rate of early deaths from air pollution. More Baltimoreans die from air pollution than from gun violence each year. Sadly, 20 percent of Baltimore’s children have asthma, twice the national average. Polluted air also increases strokes and heart disease, adding to its health costs. Newly published Harvard research even links autism to air pollution. Reducing air pollution works. A University of Southern California study revealed that decreasing air pollution led to better health outcomes for kids.

This explains why Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County councils all passed resolutions in support of updated smog regulations. The costs of air pollution are paid by city governments, businesses and citizens, not by the polluting power plants.

How did we get here? It’s safe to say that few of us knew about the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Nitrogen Oxide Reasonable Available Control Technology regulation. No kidding, that’s the name. Our smog issue had actually been fixed, but on the governor’s first day in office, he retracted the updated smog regulations. Some groups are not even sure this was a legal move.

Because Baltimore received the worst smog “grade on the East Coast under the Clean Air Act, Maryland was forced to develop the updated smog rules that Governor Hogan then pulled.

States decide how to meet EPA’s pollution targets and the 2006 Healthy Air Act is Maryland’s latest version on the books. The law made a dent in most pollutant levels, but not enough with nitrogen oxide pollution. This chemical, with some help from the hot sun, forms into unhealthy ground-level ozone, or smog.

The glitch in the Healthy Air Act is that over half Maryland’s coal electricity plants, some built between 1956 and 1964, got a pass on modernizing pollution control technology. Some coal-fired plants surrounding the Baltimore and Washington metros never installed the latest smog pollution controls because they didn’t have to; lower emissions from the state’s newer coal-fired electricity plants covered for Baltimore’s emissions.

Maryland’s Department of the Environment, power plant owners, public health experts, the Sierra Club and others negotiated the ozone-reducing pollution rules that Mr. Hogan pulled. Not an easy task, but the group agreed that Maryland’s coal-fired electricity plants would run existing pollution controls during the hot summer months. Plus, Maryland’s coal electricity plants had to modernize pollution controls, switch to natural gas fuel, or close by 2020.

Only one party didn’t buy in to the compromise regulations. NRG, a Fortune 500 corporation, has stated that cleaning up their four Maryland plants is too costly, and the new regulations would force them to close, costing 500 jobs. Oddly, NRG has modernized their power plants in other states.

We ask the governor to do the right thing and quickly issue strong nitrogen oxide regulations that bring Maryland’s power plants up to snuff. Baltimore should benefit from the Clean Air Act just like the rest of the country. Instead, we continue to breathe dangerously polluted air with no fix in sight.

Our hope is that Governor Hogan will replace the “emergency rules” with strong policies that keep citizens out of emergency rooms.

Shirley Nathan-Pulliam is a state senator; her email is shirley.nathan.pulliam@senate.state.md.us. Dana M. Stein is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates; his email is dana.stein@house.state.md.us. Both are Democrats. Laurel Peltier is a member of Moms Clean Air Force; her email isgreenlaurel7@comcast.net.

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