Time to clean up Md. power plants

October 11, 2005|By ERIC SCHAEFFER

WASHINGTON -- Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality has ordered the Mirant Corp. to clean up or close its aging power plant on the banks of the Potomac River in Alexandria.

Mirant's three Maryland plants in Charles, Montgomery and Prince George's counties are much larger, and won't be shutting down any time soon. But given Virginia's aggressive enforcement, it's time to ask whether our state is doing enough about the enormous amount of air pollution caused by Maryland's coal-fired electricity generators.

Few people realize that Mirant's three coal-fired power stations in Maryland are among the dirtiest plants of their kind in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Dickerson plant, in Montgomery County, and the Morgantown Plant, in Charles County, release more sulfur dioxide for the amount of electricity they produce than all but a handful of the dirtiest power plants in coal states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Since taking ownership of the three Maryland plants five years ago, Mirant has increased their sulfur dioxide emissions by almost 25 percent, according to the EPA data.

This past sweltering summer triggered a wave of alerts in the Baltimore-Washington area, with officials sounding the alarm when hot weather and pollution combine to form smog that makes our air unhealthy for the young, the elderly and asthma sufferers. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen from power plants also form fine particles that contribute to lung cancer and heart disease and cause more than 20,000 premature deaths a year, according to the EPA.

The EPA has determined that most Marylanders live in areas where fine-particle pollution levels are unsafe, which means that many of these early deaths occur on our own doorstep. Unlike smog, which is a summer phenomenon, fine-particle pollution is a year-round killer. Further, power plants are also significant sources of airborne emissions of mercury.

Since there is relatively little heavy industry in the Baltimore and Washington areas, the conventional wisdom is that our air pollution comes from two sources: the region's infamous traffic and dirty power plants in far-away states. The truth is that when it comes to power plant pollution, we should look much closer to home.

Maryland could cut down on its biggest local polluter by writing stricter permits, enforcing the Clean Air Act and passing legislation to clean up its power plants, as states such as North Carolina, New York and Texas have done.

Instead, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. seems content to wait for the polluter-friendly Bush administration to solve our problems. The Bush administration is promoting an emissions trading plan that would allow companies such as Mirant to postpone cleanup for years. As a result, the Baltimore and Washington areas will continue to flunk air quality standards for fine particle pollution 10 years from now, according to the EPA's analysis.

Maryland is talking to other states about regional solutions, but we are running out of time. Federal law says we have five years to meet health-based standards for fine particles, but Mirant has announced no plans to install the scrubbers needed to meet those limits. Scrubbers spray lime slurry into the gases that emerge from a power plant's boiler, neutralizing sulfur dioxide.

We know that dedicated Mirant workers who make sure we can turn on the lights every day are willing to do what it takes to provide cleaner power. But the corporate bosses in Atlanta seem to be dragging their feet when it comes to their Maryland operations.

The General Assembly, which convenes in January, will be considering a bill that would force a long-overdue cleanup of Maryland's power plants. Even the Bush administration agrees that every dollar invested in pollution control would save $10 in health costs. What are we waiting for?

Eric Schaeffer is director of the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project. He lives in Takoma Park.

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