Md. trails other states in fight against dirty air

Emissions: For a `blue' state, Maryland has been unexpectedly reluctant to tackle its gray skies.

October 10, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND has a reputation as an environmentally progressive state for its efforts to protect rockfish and wetlands. But critics say it's years behind the leaders in passing laws that would help protect people from the life-threatening dangers of dirty air.

There are several theories about why a mostly Democratic state would seem like regulation-heavy Massachusetts when it comes to guarding the Chesapeake Bay, but more like laissez-faire Louisiana when it comes to smokestacks and tailpipes.

Maryland's wealthy suburban voters - the ones who plaster their bumpers with "Save the Bay" stickers - support efforts to protect the bay's shores and waters because they're visible symbols of local pride, environmental advocates suggest.

"Air pollution is an invisible problem, and so some people aren't concerned about it, even though it's as serious an issue as it gets, causing hundreds of premature deaths," said Eric V. Schaeffer, former chief of enforcement for the Environmental Protection Agency and now an environmental activist.

Maryland legislators have resisted strong laws to curb power plant emissions, arguing that air pollution is a federal issue that states should not attempt to tackle, because pollutants drift across state lines.

But California and several Northeastern states have rejected this theory, and now lawmakers here are asking whether Maryland should follow.

Faced with a lack of federal action - and even hostility from the White House toward efforts to impose tougher air pollution rules - California on Sept. 24 assumed a national leadership role, as it has since the 1960s, when it first imposed its own limits on forms of pollution from cars. This time, California's regulators approved a plan that would make it the only state in the nation to demand vehicles reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Officials in California are concerned that SUVs, pickup trucks and other vehicles are pumping out carbon dioxide and other gases that are trapping heat in Earth's atmosphere, causing temperatures to tick upward, polar ice sheets to melt and sea levels to rise.

No to Kyoto

The U.S. government has rejected addressing the problem of global warming through the Kyoto protocol, an international treaty to limit greenhouse gases, which was approved by the leaders of 120 countries - including, recently, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

With both Bush and the Senate avoiding the issue - some saying Kyoto would put American companies at a competitive disadvantage - California's air regulators decided to attack global warming on their own. Seven other states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, have decided to follow California's new tighter vehicle emission standards, which are similar to requirements in Europe and Japan.

Last spring, Maryland's legislature considered joining that group by adopting the California standard, but the bill died in committee.

Since 2000, another group of seven states, including Texas, Illinois and North Carolina, have passed strong local laws to curb pollution from coal-fired power plants. Maryland lawmakers debated a similar law in March, but it also failed to go anywhere.

"This is not just an environmental issue, it's a public health issue - lots of people are getting sick from air pollution," said state Del. James W. Hubbard, a Democrat from Prince George's County and the sponsor of the legislation.

A 2003 study by the state Health Department concluded that air pollution aggravates a growing asthma problem in Maryland, with 32,000 emergency room visits for asthma last year, 8,000 hospitalizations and 88 deaths. These figures echo national research that has found an almost-doubling in asthma since 1980.

About 600,000 Maryland residents (about 12 percent of the population) suffer from asthma at some point in their lives, with poor, urban, young and elderly people hit hardest, according to the state study. Hospital visits for asthma among Marylanders cost $61 million a year, with government paying 59 percent of the expense.

A 2002 study by Harvard University health researchers concluded that microscopic, soot-like particles from four power plants in Maryland and one in Virginia cause an estimated 270 premature deaths a year from heart attacks and lung disease in a region stretching from North Carolina to Connecticut.

Although Maryland's air quality has generally been improving over the past three decades, the Baltimore area and Cecil County continue to be designated as seriously in violation of federal health standards for ozone, which can aggravate breathing problems.

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