Discharges into bay will be cut State industries to reduce flow of 28 pollutants

November 21, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Environmental Protection Agency; National Academy of SciencesStaff Writer

After more than two years of resistance, Maryland industries have agreed to reduce discharges of 28 toxic pollutants into the state's rivers and Chesapeake Bay.

An out-of-court settlement reached this week clears the way for the Maryland Department of the Environment to enforce strict limits on more than 1,000 factories, power plants and municipal sewage-treatment plants.

The agreement between the state, business interests and environmental groups will lead to "a significant reduction in toxic discharges," said Robert Perciasepe, Maryland environment secretary.

The settlement cancels lawsuits by six corporations and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce to block imposition of state pollution limits.

During more than two years of haggling with the state, industry had claimed the rules would cost billions of dollars while doing little to clean up streams.

The state standards are mainly designed to protect the aquatic environment and to prevent such substances as dioxin, lead and mercury from concentrating in seafood and thereby endangering humans.

The reduction in toxic pollution will benefit populations of fish and shellfish, some of which can be harmed by tiny amounts of metals or organic chemicals.

Originally adopted in April 1990, the toxic pollution limits were shelved after the six corporations filed suit, claiming the rules would cost them a total of more than $10 billion. The legal broadside was fired by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Bethlehem Steel Corp., Delmarva Power and Light, General Motors Corp., Potomac Electric Power Co. and Armco Inc.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, representing other businesses, eventually joined the fray, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which had lobbied for tough limits on toxics, intervened on the state's side.

Industry's organized resistance prompted Gov. William Donald Schaefer to order his staff to take another look at the rules. Lawyers representing both sides have been meeting every few months behind closed doors. Under the agreement, stringent limits on 28 metals and organic chemicals -- from arsenic to zinc -- remain unchanged from what the state first proposed.

But the way in which the state's toxic limits would be applied to individual factories or sewage plants has been changed. Industry officials say the rules are now more realistic and potentially easier to meet.

In one major change, an industry or sewage plant is allowed to gauge the toxicity of its discharge after the matter has been diluted in the river or stream. Environmentalists had contended that such "mixing zones" would kill fish near the discharge point, but industry argued that the fish could easily escape the harmful waters.

In another change, a factory could seek relaxed limits by providing scientific evidence that the discharge at that particular site is no threat. Bethlehem Steel, for one, is expected to seek such "site-specific" toxic limits; the company had complained that it would have to spend $500 million or more to reduce copper, cyanide and nickel in the wastewater discharged from its Sparrows Point plant.

The state's electric utilities hammered out a compromise with the state. They agreed to replace all copper pipes used to carry cooling water through power plants. In return, they would not have to meet a stringent limit on the amount of copper in such discharges.

Utilities had argued that background levels of copper in Maryland streams already exceed the proposed state limit, and that using the water for cooling purposes did not create any additional pollution.

Baltimore Gas and Electric, which two years ago warned that removing copper from its power-plant discharges could cost each of its customers $10,000, now says the rules should not cost much at all. BG&E already has begun replacing its copper cooling pipes with titanium ones because the new material lasts longer, said Betty Bauereis, the utility's environmental director.

State officials could not provide any overall estimates of how much toxic pollution will be reduced as the limits are imposed over the next five years. Maryland businesses discharged more than 235,000 pounds of the regulated chemicals in 1990, but that does not include substantial amounts of the same chemicals coming from municipal sewage-treatment plants and other sources.

For example, the new limits will require taking more than 4 tons of lead a year out of the sewage discharged by Baltimore's Patapsco wastewater-treatment plant.

The facility, which handles 180 million gallons of wastewater daily, also will have to remove 13,700 pounds of selenium and 660 pounds of mercury a year.

The revised rules are expected to take effect early next year after the public has had a chance to comment. The new limits will then be applied to each industry or sewage plant as its wastewater-discharge permit comes up for renewal during the next five years.

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