Power plants in Md. judged bad polluters PIRG study lists 4 facilities in state among nation's worst

BGE 'takes strong exception'

Report also urges accelerated efforts to meet standards

June 26, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

A nationwide study of power plants released yesterday lists four plants in Maryland among the dirtiest in the country, and calls for accelerated steps to clean up the nation's aging coal-burning facilities.

The report, by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, documents pollution levels from 559 plants across the country.

All are older plants exempt from many of the pollution standards required of more modern plants. Together they emit billions of tons of pollutants a year, according to the study.

"This report is especially crucial now," said Dan Pontious, executive director of the Maryland PIRG office. "Many states, including Maryland, are moving toward deregulating utilities. These plants will be cheaper to operate because they haven't had to invest in pollution controls, so there will be more pressure to use those plants once competition is introduced to the electric industry."

The report includes three lists of 100-worst plants, distinguished by type of emission: nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide.

The four Maryland power plants named among the 100-worst lists include Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s Brandon Shores and CP Crane plants, and Potomac Electric Power Co.'s Morgantown and Chalk Point plants. Brandon Shores is the only Maryland facility named in all three categories.

PIRG also identified six other Maryland plants as heavy polluters: BGE's Gould Street plant, Allegheny Power System's R. Paul Smith, Herbert A. Wagner and Riverside plants, Delmarva Power & Light Co.'s Vienna plant, and PEPCO's Dickerson plant.

"As long as we use fossil fuels to generate electricity, there will be emissions," said Nancy Moses, spokeswoman for PEPCO.

The challenge, she said, is to balance cleanup efforts with reasonable costs for consumers. "If all 559 power plants shut down, where would the electricity come from that is the underpinning of our economy? Nuclear?"

BGE response

BGE spokesman Karl Neddenien said the company "takes strong exception" to the PIRG report.

He said the company has retired six of its oldest, least-efficient generating units, and is spending nearly $100 million on plant improvements to meet standards by 2000.

"We are committed to clean air, and we are doing our share," he said. He said the Brandon Shores plant is the "cleanest coal-fired plant in the state."

Martha Casey, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said the regulations require a balancing act.

"It's conceivable that some old dirty plant may be polluting like hell, but others in the region are doing real well, and that would offset the abundance of pollution," she said.

Casey added, "It comes down to common sense. Are you going to put a new transmission in a 20-year automobile if an automobile only has six months to run?"

PIRG and the Sierra Club complained yesterday that the power plants have been exempt from many of the Clean Air Act provisions since the law's inception more than 20 years ago, allowing a "lethal loophole" that permits the utilities to legally pollute at unhealthy levels and below the standards required of modern power plants.

Those pollutants endanger more than 117 million Americans living in places with unhealthy air during the summer, according to PIRG. The pollutants also contribute to acid rain, global warming and mercury poisoning, the report noted.

Under revisions to the Clean Air Act in 1990, Congress tightened controls on older plants to strictly limit emissions of sulfur by 2000. But emissions of nitrogen oxides at the older plants remained virtually unregulated, said Paul Stolpman, the EPA's director of the Office of Atmospheric Programs.

The agency is drafting a plan for substantial nitrogen oxide reductions -- as much as 85 percent by 2003.

That plan should be complete this year, he said.

Power plants remain the largest single cause of air pollution in the country, said Stolpman.

'Red alert'

Based on EPA data for every U.S. power plant, the PIRG report identifies those that release more than 20 tons of pollution beyond levels permitted for modern facilities.

"Today is a 'red alert' [high pollution] day in Washington, D.C., and much of the East Coast," said the study's author, Rebecca Stansfield, in a telephone interview yesterday from PIRG's national headquarters. "These perfectly legal amounts of air pollution are killing people. The current standards are not strong enough to protect public health."

If all of Maryland's power plants met the standards required for modern plants, more than 82,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 211,000 tons of sulfur dioxide a year would be eliminated, the report said.

Members of both PIRG and the Sierra Club also accused the utilities yesterday of deceptive strategies to fight tougher air quality standards.

In the past week, they noted, PEPCO and BGE filed lawsuits challenging new Maryland standards limiting nitrogen oxide emissions.

Environmentalists characterized the suits as "stalling" tactics, while the utilities said the suits reflected real difficulties in meeting the new standards and the May 1, 1999, deadline.

"It's outrageous," said Pontious of Maryland PIRG. "It's just another example of how utilities are fighting clean air standards."

Earlier this year, the General Assembly considered setting a timetable for deregulating electric power but took no action. The issue is expected to return to the legislature next year.

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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