Mercury pollution talks yield no change

Md. officials saw EPA meeting as alternative to joining lawsuit

Environmentalist calls choice `ineffectual'

12 states suing over exemption on emissions for power plants

July 25, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A meeting with top federal environmental officials that the Ehrlich administration hoped would lead to tighter controls on mercury air pollution has produced no changes, state and federal officials said.

Aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had promoted a meeting with EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson as a more productive way to reduce pollution than joining a lawsuit against the Bush administration.

State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. disagreed, but was blocked by the governor from joining litigation filed by 12 other states to challenge the Bush administration's exemption of coal-fired power plants from strict mercury-emissions rules.

Curran and his predecessor said such a denial by a governor hadn't happened in decades.

The lack of measurable progress from the meeting with EPA officials in Washington last month convinced some activists that talks were a weak alternative.

"That was clearly an ineffectual route to take," said Erin Fitzsimmons, Chesapeake Regional coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance. "It's a day late and a dollar short to set up a discussion about mercury after the final mercury rules had been issued and after the public comment period had ended."

If the Ehrlich administration were serious about tightening mercury-control regulations, she said, it wouldn't have testified against state-level laws restricting the pollutant earlier this year.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor, said that the administration is committed to cleaning up pollution and that it's too early to rule out progress in reducing mercury levels through more talks.

"Everyone has the same goal here, which is a healthy environment, but there are different ways to do that," he said. "These discussions will continue between Maryland and the EPA, and the governor has confidence they will work toward a solution."

In March, the Bush administration finalized mercury-control regulations that exempted older coal-fired power plants from Clean Air Act requirements that all smokestacks install pollution-control devices to achieve maximum emission reductions.

The administration instead created a pollution-credit trading system, allowing power plants to pay fees to exceed pollutant limits.

Ehrlich, a Republican and Bush ally, rejected Democrat Curran's request to sue the federal government to overturn the exemption for older plants. The governor's spokesman said at the time that a meeting with the EPA's top official, Johnson, would be more effective than a lawsuit, in part because Johnson is from Maryland and would likely be sympathetic to the state's position.

But Johnson didn't attend the June 17 meeting at EPA headquarters in Washington because Ehrlich wasn't there, instead sending representatives. Officials disclosed the outcome of the meeting last week.

"Administrator Johnson would be happy to meet with Governor Ehrlich," said Eryn Witcher, spokeswoman for the federal agency. "But if it's his [Ehrlich's] top aide, it's most appropriate to have the administration's top staff there. That's the normal protocol."

Instead of a top-level meeting, Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick and state air program director Tom Snyder met with Jeff Holmstead, the EPA's assistant administrator for air programs. Ehrlich didn't attend the meeting because he was confident his environmental department's staff could handle the task, Fawell said.

No follow-up meeting has been scheduled, according to spokespeople for the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment. "Maybe another meeting will be necessary, maybe it won't be," Witcher said. "We are working to address Maryland's concerns."

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