Ehrlich to issue clean air plan

Proposal specifics are not released

November 18, 2005|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that the state plans to impose rules that will compel coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury air pollution by 70 percent within five years - more quickly than required by the Bush administration.

"This rule will have a profound impact on preventing ... all sorts of respiratory illnesses as a result of air pollution," the governor told a classroom of students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. "It's an aggressive program, an aggressive regulation."

But environmentalists contend that Ehrlich's proposed "Clean Power Rule" - which he talked about but would not release - would cut mercury pollution less than simple enforcement of the decades-old federal Clean Air Act.

The plan also does nothing to reduce carbon dioxide gases, which cause global warming and rising sea levels, they said.

"The governor's plan is really no plan - he's taken the Clean Air Act, as it has been gutted by the Bush administration, and he's calling it `clean air plus' for Maryland," said state Del. James Hubbard, a Democrat from Prince George's County.

The federal Clean Air Act, before Bush issued rules to weaken it, would have required a 70 percent to 90 percent reduction in mercury air pollution by 2008, a more rapid reduction than proposed by Ehrlich yesterday, said Eric Schaeffer, a former top Environmental Protection Agency pollution enforcement official.

The Bush administration unveiled mercury reduction rules this year designed to encourage a 70 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2018. The program allows the trading of pollution credits among power plants.

The event yesterday - which was picketed by protesters waving signs reading "What About Global Warming?"- came as the Democratic party in Maryland has stepped up its attacks on Ehrlich's record on air pollution.

The Ehrlich administration has lobbied against tougher air pollution laws in Maryland and has refused to join a coalition of Eastern states setting limits on carbon dioxide gas emissions.

Yesterday's announcement came two days after a rival in the gubernatorial race, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, endorsed a state bill that would cut mercury pollution by 90 percent by 2011.

"Election years are wonderful times because last year, the governor opposed doing any of this because it was not feasible. But now he's doing a little of it," Duncan said. "He's not doing anything about carbon dioxide, which is important because of what we're seeing in terms of global warming around the world."

Olivia Campbell, a national coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, expressed doubts about the new regulations because the administration would not release them.

"Nobody has even seen these rules in writing, so they could include all sorts of loopholes for power companies," Campbell said. "It's almost unheard of for someone to hold a press conference to announce rules without releasing the rules themselves."

State officials said that the rules have been discussed with power companies but that they are still being written and could be released to the public in about a month.

About 89 percent of Maryland's population - including most people in the Baltimore region - live in areas that fail federal standards for air pollution, which aggravates asthma and triggers heart attacks. Mercury is released into the air from the burning of coal and can cause brain damage in high concentrations.

The governor's plan also would reduce soot and smog-causing pollutants from six of Maryland's nine coal-fired power plants by amounts similar to requirements announced by the Bush administration in March.

According to the EPA, the federal Clean Air Interstate Rule will cut nitrogen oxide pollution in Maryland by 72 percent by 2009 and sulfur dioxide pollution by 80 percent by 2010.

Ehrlich said yesterday that his plan will reduce nitrogen oxide pollution by 69 percent by 2010 and sulfur dioxide pollution by 85 percent by that year.

The governor insisted Maryland's goals for those two pollutants are more ambitious than called for in the federal rule. "These are facts. I don't know what's on their Web site," Ehrlich said of the EPA estimates.

Eryn Witcher, spokeswoman for the EPA, said the agency stands by its figures as accurate. "We are pleased that Maryland believes the projected emission reductions under [the federal program] are appropriate for addressing air quality and has taken steps to lock in those benefits," she said.

Julie Oberg, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said Maryland's program is stronger than the federal regulations because the state will allow less emissions trading and flexibility for power plants than the federal rules.

Jonas Jacobson, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the Ehrlich plan will likely cost power plant owners perhaps $1 billion dollars to install filtration equipment.

The state talked with power company officials while coming up with the ideas for Ehrlich's plan, Jacobson said.

"Of course we consulted with them," Jacobson said. "In order to understand how it's going to impact multimillion-dollar operations, you need to understand what can be achieved without affecting electric reliability in this region."

Constellation Energy, which owns 10 power plants in Maryland, warned that the rules could increase electricity rates. The company "is hopeful that the final rule will provide the necessary flexibility to allow Maryland power plants to remain cost-effective," spokesman Rob Gould said.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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