The owner of Maryland's largest power plant was talking to federal regulators about installing pollution-control equipment in 2002, when the Bush administration began weakening cleanup requirements for old coal-burning utilities.
So the plant's owner, a subsidiary of Mirant Corp., walked away from the table, leaving the Chalk Point power station in Prince George's County belching pollutants that cause smog, acid rain and asthma attacks.
"Mirant was talking about cleaning up their plants. Then they went the other way when they saw the White House was moving in the other direction," said Eric Schaeffer, the Environmental Protection Agency's former enforcement chief. "It became clear the government was rolling back the rules, and so the power companies stopped talking about making any improvements."
Environmentalists say what happened at Chalk Point illustrates how President Bush weakened the Clean Air Act to save money for energy companies. They are joined in opposition to the administration's policy by 14 states, including Maryland, which filed suit last year to try to block what Maryland Assistant Attorney General Kathy Kinsey called "a giant loophole" for electric power plants.
The Bush administration argues that its moves have clarified a confusing law that discouraged utilities from making badly needed plant improvements.
The Clinton administration filed several lawsuits to try to force utilities to install modern pollution controls on older plants. But EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt said the Bush administration will use market forces, not legal action, to clear the air. It is counter-productive, he argued, for the EPA to sue utilities.
"Government is not always the best way of solving a problem," said Leavitt, a former Republican governor of Utah. "It's a difference in strategy. The old thinking was `government command and control, we have to sue everybody.' The new thinking is that we can use market forces to find the most efficient way to achieve environmental improvements."
Leavitt said he would complete regulations soon that would expand an air pollution-credit trading program with the goal of reducing power plant emissions by 70 percent over the next 15 years. These trading programs force plants that exceed pollution limits to pay utilities with cleaner plants.
Chalk Point, which has the capacity to generate more electricity than any other plant in Maryland on high-demand days, has been on and off a federal list of "high-priority violators" of the Clean Air Act. Among other violations, the plant was issued a notice by the state in June for exceeding limits on sulfur dioxide, a pollutant that aggravates heart and lung problems and contributes to acid rain.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization, labeled Chalk Point last year as one of "America's Dirtiest Power Plants."
And Harvard University public health researchers concluded in a 2002 report that microscopic soot-like particles from Chalk Point and four other Washington-area power plants (two of which are owned by Mirant) cause an estimated 270 premature deaths a year from heart attacks and lung disease.
Most of the health problems the researchers noted were linked to Chalk Point emissions, which the researchers said were responsible for 100 deaths a year, 7,500 asthma attacks and 1,400 nonfatal emergency room visits annually in an area from North Carolina to Connecticut.
Jonathan I. Levy, an assistant professor of environmental health at Harvard and the report's lead author, said he drew his conclusions by analyzing statistics from previous research correlating deaths and air pollution levels, including a nationwide study of 500,000 people by the American Cancer Society.
About 80 percent of the annual deaths linked to Chalk Point and the other plants could be prevented if the utilities install modern pollution control equipment, Levy said. One of the most effective controls, scrubbers, are tall silos lined with shower heads that spray a mixture of water and limestone into exhaust to remove sulfur dioxide and soot-like particles.
Adding scrubbers at Chalk Point could cost at least $100 million - an investment no company would make without government pressure, said Chad Whiteman, deputy director of the Institute of Clean Air Companies, a trade organization.
Steve Arabia, a spokesman for Mirant Mid-Atlantic, which controls Chalk Point, said past violations at the plant were minor, and he dismissed the Harvard study as "severely lacking in sufficient scientific merit."
Arabia said the company is working to reduce pollution at most of its plants. He said Mirant recently applied for state permits for installation of a $25 million device at Chalk Point by June that would inject ammonia to reduce by half the plant's emission of nitrogen oxides. The pollutants are components of smog.
"Environmental compliance is a big part of our employees' annual performance rating, and we want to get it right," Arabia said.