New rules to clear the air EPA pollution limits affect Md., 21 others

September 25, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Marylanders should see cleaner air -- and perhaps slightly higher utility bills -- under a 22-state federal smog-reduction program that calls for the state to make some of the steepest pollution cuts on the East Coast.

The air emissions rules, announced by the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday, are designed to reduce the amount of smog-causing ozone that flows from the Midwest and South toward the coast. The pollutants, which can travel hundreds of miles, make it difficult for Eastern states to clean up their dirty air and contribute to pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.

The federal rules will require 22 states in the eastern third of the country to cut their emissions of nitrogen oxide, an ingredient of smog, by about 28 percent beginning in 2003. States will have until 2007 to make all of the smog reductions.

EPA administrator Carol Browner said the rules are "the centerpiece" of federal efforts to clean up urban air pollution.

"This action will help prevent thousands of cases of smog-related illnesses, like bronchitis and exacerbated cases of childhood asthma, each year," Browner said.

Maryland environmental officials said they support the tough new rules, even though the state will have to enact stricter controls than most of its neighbors. In fact, the EPA imposed the new rules at the urging of Maryland and other eastern states, after a two-year study showed that pollution from faraway states is a major obstacle to local clean-air efforts.

"Maryland is at the receiving end of emissions from the Midwest and a little bit from the South," said Merrylin Zaw-Mon, director of air and radiation management for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "So we are encouraged that the EPA moved forward."

Ozone pollution comes from a variety of sources, including industrial smokestacks and automobile tailpipes. It causes heart and respiratory problems for children, the elderly and people with some chronic illnesses. Last year, the EPA began phasing in strict new limits on ozone levels in the air after medical studies showed the old standards were not tough enough to protect public health.

The air emissions rules announced yesterday are intended to bring ozone levels down low enough to meet the new limits. If states meet the pollution cuts demanded by the agency, all but three East Coast metropolitan areas will be able to achieve what the EPA considers healthy air without doing anything else, said Marcia Spink, associate director for air programs for EPA's Mid-Atlantic region.

But the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area -- along with New York and Philadelphia -- was never able to meet the old health standard. This summer, the region suffered through 10 days when local air was classified as "code red," or dangerously unhealthy. It will be even harder to meet the new health standard, Maryland officials said.

"Obviously, additional steps are going to be necessary for Baltimore-Washington," Zaw-Mon said. "We're not sure what they will be yet. We're looking at reductions from the automobile, business and industry."

But Zaw-Mon said the state probably won't impose new controls on passenger cars, since officials believe the existing tailpipe emissions inspections are doing a good job of reducing that kind of pollution.

EPA will let each state decide how to reach the pollution-cutting goals, but most states are expected to target utilities and big industrial plants that generate electricity by burning coal. The agency estimates it will cost about $1,500 a ton to cut emissions from coal-fired plants, compared to about $3,400 a ton to cut pollution from automobile tail pipes.

The agency is calling on Maryland to reduce smog-causing pollutants by more than 21,000 tons a year. That's a cut of almost 49 percent over the amount of the nitrogen oxide the state would otherwise produce by the year 2007, Spink said. Of the Mid-Atlantic states, only West Virginia faces proportionally steeper cuts.

That's because all but one of the major electrical power plants in Maryland are coal-burning, and coal-fired plants are the largest source of nitrogen oxide. And because many of the state's power plants were built before the Clean Air Act and other anti-pollution laws went into effect, they face less stringent controls than newer facilities.

Nationwide, the EPA estimates that if states require utility companies to bear the brunt of the clean-up effort, consumers could see their electric bills increase about 1 percent.

BGE spokesman Karl Neddenien said utility officials have not yet had a chance to review EPA's new rules, and can't say whether Marylanders' electric bills would go up.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has already ordered the state's power plants to reduce their nitrogen oxide emissions by 65 percent beginning in May 1999. But BGE and other big power generators immediately sued the state, seeking an extra 18 months to make the reductions.

"We fully support achieving clean air goals and we have committed many millions of dollars to achieving emissions reductions," said BGE spokesman Neddenien. "We're going to install equipment that will meet or exceed the state's goal, but we do not have time to do it as fast as MDE wants."

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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