EPA's power to demand cleaner air reaffirmed

States can be forced to cut smog, court says

March 04, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a ruling that seems likely to help Baltimore and Maryland residents breathe easier in the summer, a federal appeals court upheld yesterday a 1998 government ruling requiring sharp cutbacks in ozone pollution.

By a 2-1 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals declared that the Environmental Protection Agency had full authority to require Maryland, 18 other states and the District of Columbia to draw up new plans to reduce interstate movement of smog-causing chemicals from May through September.

The appeals court rejected most of the significant challenges to the EPA decision leveled by several states and a number of electric utilities, including Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. The court did exempt three states -- Georgia, Missouri and Wisconsin -- from the rules.

The harmful pollution involved is ground-level ozone, a major component of smog -- the kind of dirty air that, in the summer months, can lead to air-quality "red alerts." Scientific data indicate that nitrogen oxide gas mixed with harmful chemicals gets "cooked" into ground-level ozone, which can harm the lungs when breathed.

Although Maryland has goals it must meet under the EPA decision, environmental advocates said the state will get a greater benefit because states west of Maryland, for the first time, will have to make reductions -- more than the Maryland goals -- in the pollutants they send eastward.

"It will take time, but Maryland and Baltimore should get a dramatic reduction in adverse health [effects], if the reductions are achieved," according to John M. Stanton, vice president of the National Environmental Trust, an environmental advocacy group.

Stanton, citing data gathered by a Rockville health consulting firm, Abt Associates, said that there are 86,000 asthma attacks on average every summer in Baltimore because of ozone smog from electric power plants.

Maryland already has a pact with 10 other eastern states to reduce ozone smog, and has moved toward the main goal set for it under the EPA plan: a summertime reduction of 21,182 tons of nitrogen oxide -- or "NOx" -- emissions.

By contrast with Maryland's goal, Ohio must reduce its summertime NOx by 132,000 tons to meet EPA's standard, and West Virginia must achieve a reduction of 97,000 tons, according to records in the EPA case.

The EPA decision sets standards for NOx reductions, but leaves it up to the individual states to determine how to meet those goals. Environmental advocates say, however, that the only practical way to satisfy the goals is for states to require electric power plants to accomplish 85 percent of the total reductions.

That's because EPA keyed its suggested reduction goals to the costs of reducing NOx. It is much less costly for a power plant to do so than for other sources, according to Clear the Air, a coalition of environmental groups.

Although EPA did not demand that power plants assume that share of the reduction, Clear the Air estimates that the EPA goals cannot be met otherwise.

Only about 15 percent of the total reductions can be achieved by reducing emissions from cars and other smaller polluters, according to Clear the Air.

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