Breathing easier

November 22, 2005

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. deserves credit for a change of heart - and a heart-healthy plan to fight pollution. A year ago, he was dead set against imposing tougher standards on the noxious emissions coming out of Maryland's coal-fired power plants. Last week, he announced stricter air-quality regulations for those same aging power plants. The proposal is not strong enough, mind you, but is a big improvement over doing nothing at all.

There are seven Maryland power plants that are old enough to be exempt from much of the federal Clean Air Act standards. They are the state's largest industrial source of air pollution, spewing nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury and carbon dioxide at a lung-aching rate. This witches' brew not only damages the environment but human health as well, particularly in children and the elderly and those with asthma or heart disease. But these plants are also prized by their owners as a less expensive source of electricity, and the Bush administration has so far failed to crack down on the problem.

So it's welcome news that Mr. Ehrlich has proposed regulations affecting six of the plants, significantly toughening standards for nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury. And while he hasn't yet offered all the specifics, Mr. Ehrlich has pledged to impose these standards by 2010. That's a timetable even more ambitious than what environmental groups have been seeking.

But not all of the governor's proposal passes muster with clean air advocates. For one thing, it doesn't address carbon dioxide and the growing threat of global warming. Environmentalists are also disappointed that mercury pollution is treated incidentally - the administration's anticipated reductions appear to be a byproduct of the curbs on nitrogen and sulfur. If so, that's a mistake. Toxic mercury emissions end up in the water and in fish and, ultimately, cause harm to the human brain and nervous system.

Fortunately, the deficiencies in Mr. Ehrlich's approach can be corrected in a matter of weeks, since the General Assembly is likely to take up the issue early next year. Similar legislation passed a state Senate committee during the last session. The governor's support would be helpful this time around.

Maryland has some of the nation's worst air pollution but Mr. Ehrlich's record of doing something about it has been pretty poor to date. Earlier this year, the governor ordered Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. not to join the states (and the city of Baltimore) suing the EPA over mercury pollution. And Mr. Ehrlich hasn't shown any interest in the coalition of northeastern states that are working to cut carbon dioxide emissions either. There are Republican governors involved in both those efforts. Mr. Ehrlich ought to be, too.

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