EPA calls much of Md. ozone moderate

State's pollution remains among the nation's worst

`We'll never meet the ... standard'

April 16, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Maryland has cleaned up its air enough since the late 1980s that the Environmental Protection Agency reclassified yesterday much of the state's ozone pollution as moderate from severe - even under a new, stricter definition of clean air.

But pollution here remains among the country's worst, and state officials say they will have a tough time cutting ground-level ozone further.

The better grade the state got yesterday reflects a decade of tightening controls on everything from smokestacks and auto exhaust to gas canisters, hairspray and perfume bottles.

Dirty air blowing in from power plants in the Ohio River Valley accounts for about half of Maryland's ozone problem, and state officials say little more can be done locally.

"The low-hanging fruit is pretty much all gone in Maryland," said George Aburn, manager of air quality planning at the Maryland Department of the Environment. "Without significant reductions in pollution that floats in from other states, we'll never meet the [new] ozone standard."

The EPA released the new "moderate" classification for Baltimore and 13 Maryland counties yesterday as part of a list of 474 counties, in 31 states, failing to meet stricter ozone standards. The Maryland localities also had fallen short of the old standards.

The EPA for the first time raised a flag about ozone in Washington County, putting it on a kind of probation with a 2007 deadline to improve.

Ozone, the primary ingredient in smog, is formed when paint and auto fumes chemically react in sunlight with nitrogen oxides, a product of burning fuels in car engines and power plants. Ozone damages lung cells, making breathing difficult and aggravating asthma.

The EPA revised its standard for ozone in 1997, after scientific studies found harm to human health at lower exposure levels over longer periods. Three states and dozens of companies sued to stop the new rule, but they lost before the Supreme Court in 2001.

Under the new standard, air is unhealthy if its ozone concentrations are 85 parts per billion or higher, averaged over eight hours. The old standard was 120 parts per billion, measured hourly.

Ozone levels in Baltimore and its suburbs average 103 parts per billion under the eight-hour standard, said Judith M. Katz, the top air protection official at the EPA's regional office in Philadelphia.

Maryland has until 2010 to achieve healthy air - five years later than under the old rules. States that fail to follow their cleanup plans can lose federal highway funds or face tough restrictions on development.

When the EPA last rated the ozone problem by county, using data from the late 1980s, pollution in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Carroll, Cecil, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties was classified as severe. Last year, the EPA reclassified ozone levels in Prince George's, Montgomery, Frederick, Charles and Calvert counties from serious to severe for failing to reduce ozone levels on schedule.

Kent and Queen Anne's counties had been classified as having only "marginal" pollution. But like other counties, their ratings were changed yesterday to moderate.

Stricter tailpipe emissions standards, better pollution controls on power plants and recent state regulations on polluters as small as bakeries and gas stations helped cut ozone levels in Maryland by 21 percent over the past decade and a half, according to MDE officials and EPA figures.

In recent years, ozone has exceeded safe levels 10 to 12 days a year, down from 20 to 30 days a year in the 1980s, state officials said. The changes parallel improvements in urban areas around the country.

Even so, a 2002 report from the Maryland Public Interest Research Group rated the state's ozone problem as the fifth worst in the nation.

Brad Heavner, the advocacy group's director, said yesterday that he hoped that the new classification will not breed complacency.

"The hope is that the state doesn't use this as an excuse to do nothing," he said. "There are a lot of pollution sources out there that could be better controlled."

The EPA says it will help Eastern states such as Maryland deal with dirty air from other states with a national rule this fall to cut ozone-producing emissions from power plants by 70 percent by 2015, though critics say that's not enough.

"We want local areas to know we're not leaving you hanging with the whole burden to do this by yourself," said Donald Welsh, the EPA administrator for the Mid-Atlantic.

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