Plan aims at big cut in smog

September 27, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Smog-forming pollution from power plants and factories in Maryland and other East Coast states could be slashed by up to two-thirds by 1999 under a plan to be approved today by state air-quality regulators.

The plan is the first major effort by the states to curb nitrogen-oxide emissions from smokestack industries, which until now have received little attention in the federally mandated battle against ozone.

But critics warn that the reductions planned by the Ozone Transport Commission may not do enough to banish the smog that causes breathing problems in Baltimore and other urban areas in the mid-Atlantic region and the Northeast.

Meeting today in Newport, R.I., the commission, made up of air-quality officials from Maine to Virginia, was to adopt a two-stage plan for reducing nitrogen oxides from power plants and large industrial boilers. Those oxides and hydrocarbons from motor vehicles are the main ingredients of smog.

Initial reductions of 55 percent to 65 percent would be required by May 1999 in Maryland and most other states in the region, with a second round of cuts by 2003 if needed.

Maryland environmental officials estimate that utilities in the state would have to spend $136 million on the first round of reductions. The cost to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is projected at $70 million, but no estimate of the effect on customers' bills was available yesterday.

The reductions mark "a major step forward" against smog, said William G. Rosenberg, former top air-quality regulator for the Environmental Protection Agency, who is now a consultant for industry.

"For the last 25 years, we've been regulating for smog and only focusing on hydrocarbon sources -- cars and gasoline, refineries and printing mills," Mr. Rosenberg said.

Scientists have said in recent years that major reductions also are needed in nitrogen oxides, which come mainly from power plants, especially coal-burning ones.

Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to require that smoggy urban areas make specific reductions in hydrocarbons.

But the law did not set similar targets for nitrogen oxides, requiring only "reasonably available" controls on ozone's other major ingredient.

In response, Eastern states moved two years ago to require modest reductions by utilities. Those curbs, accomplished mainly by improving existing power plant burners, cut emissions by 20 percent and cost Maryland utilities about $21 million, according to the state Department of the Environment.

Though major, the latest reductions planned by the ozone commission fall short of what EPA studies indicate is needed, critics say.

Another complaint is that the plan, as drafted, gives utilities too much leeway in figuring emissions.

"There's no question that this is a lot better than nothing," said Michael Hirschfield, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But the ozone commission may be "postponing the obvious" in not demanding larger reductions now, he said.

Dr. Hirschfield said the plan also shortchanges efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, because fallout of airborne nitrogen from power plants is a major source of the nutrients that are degrading water quality.

The plan requires emission reductions only during the five spring and summer months when ozone is a problem. But year-round controls on emissions would aid the bay and other estuaries, Dr. Hirschfield said.

Backers of the plan say it calls for additional steps after 1999 if needed. "Although the reductions upfront might not be to the levels environmentalists would like to see, ultimately we do get there," said Merrylin Zaw-Mon, Maryland's air management administrator.

The EPA will be asked to do something about nitrogen oxide emissions in states farther west such as Ohio and West Virginia, she said.

Studies indicate that prevailing winds bring smog-forming pollutants from that area to Maryland and other Eastern states, she noted.

SMOG FORMULA

* Ground-level ozone, called smog, causes breathing problems for many people.

* Smog forms when hot summer sun causes hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides to combine in the air.

* Motor vehicles are the chief source of hydrocarbons.

* Nitrogen oxides come mainly from electric generating plants that burn fossil fuels.

* Industrial plants also release some nitrogen oxides, as do motor vehicles.

* In Maryland, an estimated 56 percent of nitrogen oxides come from power plants and industry, 33 percent from vehicles and 11 percent from a variety of small sources.

* At least 4 million Marylanders -- 80 percent of the population -- occasionally breathe unhealthful amounts of ozone.

* Smog reached unhealthful levels in the Baltimore area 11 days this summer -- five fewer than in 1993 but more than in any other city on the East Coast, Maryland officials say.

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