The new federal Clean Air Act, hailed as the most significant air-pollution law in our nation's history, may have no impact whatsoever on any of the county's coal-burning power plants.
The Brandon Shore/Wagner power plant complex is listed by the Department of Environment as the state's leading producer of nitrogen oxides and the third-leading producer of sulfur oxides, which combine with rain to produce acid rain. But Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials say the utility may not have to make any adjustments to meet new environmental requirements.
"These plants are in pretty good shape for the Clean Air Act. We may not reduce any of our emissions here," Jack R. Lodge, BG&E's state affairs director, said.
The bill, passed Nov. 15, requires that, by 2000, BG&E get rid of some 15,000 tons a year of acid rain-producing chemicals expected to be produced by the soon-to-be completed Brandon Shores II plant. But Lodge hinted that BG&E would take advantage of a provision in the bill allowing companies to transfer pollution reduction credits from other facilities, rather than installing expensive pollution control devices such as "scrubbers" at the North County plant.
State Sen. Gerald Winegrad, D-Annapolis, a leading environmental advocate, was disappointed that the Brandon and Wagner plants, all located on Fort Smallwood Road, may not be affected by the legislation that President George Bush hailed as "the most significant air-pollution legislation in our nation's history."
"The acid rain problem is definitely being exacerbated by these emissions, and the vast new efforts to save the critters of the bay are being undermined by allowing them to continue uncontrolled," Winegrad said.
"What's hard to reconcile is that the state is putting all this work into reducing nitrogen from agriculture and other sources while (BG&E) will be allowed to add 10,000 new tons of (nitrogen oxide gases) right there on the shore."
The emissions-trading clauses in the new Clean Air Act will create a new sort of commodities exchange market where companies buy and sell pollution reductions. The system will allow companies like BG&E, which produce excess sulfur or nitrogen, to pay for reductions at other sites instead of improving air quality at their own plants.
Mary Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition, pledged to continue fighting to force BG&E to use a scrubber at the Brandon Shores II facility, which is scheduled to go on line next May.
She said she is organizing with the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action to enlist the state Public Service Commission to require a scrubber at the new plant. Rosso said she made a written request for a public hearing on the issue last December.
Frank Fulton, spokesman for the PSC, which regulates utilities, said the commission delayed any consideration of the request until the Clean Air Act was passed.
He said his agency will not be able to comment on the impact of the new regulations until early next year, when administrators have had time to digest the meaning of the 748-page federal bill.
Winegrad said the PSC probably wouldn't be able to get BG&E to limit emissions, though.
"They have their hands full controlling rates. What's needed is new state legislation, but the legislature has always looked very favorably on utilities, so I wouldn't expect much there either. But that's where our efforts should be focused."
BG&E has fought any plan to require scrubbers at its three existing coal plants or for the Brandon II facility. Officials say the equipment would be too costly, resulting in as much as a 5 percent to 6 percent rate increase in utility bills.
Instead of using scrubbers for the existing plants, which BG&E officials say cost as much as $220 million and require $40 million a year to operate, the electric company already uses low-sulfur coal imported from the western United States, allowing the utility to barely meet the standards set in the Clean Air Act for 2000.