EPA introduces program to reduce air pollution

Maryland is skeptical that `cap and trade' plan will actually cut smog

December 05, 2003|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Announcing a new, market-driven air pollution control program yesterday, the chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the plan would help rid Maryland of persistent smog that threatens the health of one in three state residents.

But state officials, pollution experts and environmentalists disagreed, saying that the plan won't guarantee a solution to Maryland's worst air pollution problem: a stream of gases and particles flowing east from old, coal-burning power plants in the Midwest.

The EPA announced its program on the same day it informed 534 jurisdictions, including Baltimore City and 14 Maryland counties, that they're violating tough new health standards for smog-forming ozone, scheduled to be phased in over the next two decades.

Baltimore City and its five surrounding counties were all listed as potential violators, along with Prince George's, Montgomery, Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne's, Calvert, Charles, Frederick and Washington counties.

Maryland and 31 other states have until April 2007 to figure out how to clean their air in order to meet the new standards, which are aimed at reducing rates of chronic respiratory diseases and heart problems.

The new standard has been in the works since the 1990s, when the American Lung Association and environmental groups successfully sued the EPA to set standards strict enough to protect the public health.

Maryland, which has some of the country's worst ozone pollution, was never able to meet the old, more lenient standard.

"The biggest problem we've got is ozone transport from out of state," said Kendl P. Philbrick, acting secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

In a letter to the EPA in July, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said Maryland's own pollution reductions are "inseparable" from equally steep cuts in the Midwest. He asked the federal agency to explain how it would force upwind states to clean their air.

`They ignored it'

In unusually harsh criticism from a Republican statehouse to a Republican White House, MDE's Philbrick said the government's reply, issued yesterday, did not address that issue.

"They ignored it," Philbrick said in an interview.

But EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt, who took office in October, said the Bush administration considers the proposed pollution trading program, known as the Interstate Air Quality rule, an effective reply to the concerns of Maryland and other downwind states.

Leavitt said the new program was unveiled on the same day as the list of communities that won't meet the standard because "it would be unfair to put the [list] out without having a solution."

The administration is proposing a "cap and trade" program, similar to one already used to reduce acid rain. This new "cap" would set nationwide limits on power plant emissions of two common pollutants, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

Both can cause breathing problems on their own. Sulfur dioxide is also a component of acid rain, while nitrogen oxide contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog - a powerful respiratory irritant.

The EPA wants to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 70 percent by 2015 and would cut nitrogen oxide by 40 percent.

The "trade" portion of the program would allow utilities that can reduce pollution below target levels to sell the excess reductions as pollution credits. Companies that can't meet the goals would be able to comply by buying these credits, even if they don't actually reduce pollutants.

"This is the largest air pollution reduction in more than a decade," Leavitt said. Power plants would have to install new equipment at a cost of about $5.7 billion, he said.

Leavitt, a former governor of Utah, said the proposal should satisfy officials in Eastern states who "could close every power plant, in their mind, and take every car off the road, and still not achieve the reductions."

Regional remedies

But Philbrick said Maryland has already told the EPA that the state opposes a cap-and-trade program without region-by-region reductions. Otherwise, he said, "I don't think it's helpful," because it would allow Midwestern utilities to buy credits instead of cleaning up their plants.

Air pollution professionals and environmentalists called the EPA proposal a back-door scheme to implement a Bush Administration plan to revise the Clean Air Act. The Bush plan, known as the "Clear Skies Initiative," bogged down in Congress after critics charged that it would weaken the nation's principal air pollution law.

States that don't meet the new standards could lose federal highway funds, a sanction that environmentalists concede is rarely imposed.

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