Healthier air

March 12, 2006

Electrical power is proving costly to Maryland in more ways than one. A Harvard School of Public Health researcher estimates that Maryland's six largest coal-fired power plants are causing about 700 deaths and 30,000 asthma attacks each year. And the sad fact is that these findings aren't even particularly controversial. Past studies have drawn similar conclusions. The state's aging coal-burning generators are an environmental embarrassment that has been tolerated far too long.

Even Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has earned poor marks from environmentalists for his air quality policies (or lack thereof), has joined the cause. His administration has proposed significantly tightening regulations regarding power plant emissions. The problem is that Mr. Ehrlich's proposal doesn't go nearly far enough. It's too lenient on mercury emissions and offers no solution for carbon dioxide.

Power plants are a primary source of toxic mercury that ends up in the water, contaminating fish and eventually poisoning people. They are also an important source of carbon dioxide, and the administration's lack of interest in curbing its emission is vexing for a couple of reasons. Maryland's waterfront is vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by greenhouse gases, and a growing number of states are stepping in where the Bush administration has failed so miserably. Connecticut and New York, both governed by Republicans, are among those doing more to fight global warming than Washington is.

Legislation pending in the Maryland General Assembly, the Healthy Air Act, offers a better solution. As amended Friday by a Senate committee, the bill would curb two pollutants, smog-forming nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, to mirror administration goals. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, the bill's lead sponsor, also agreed to soften some restrictions on mercury and carbon dioxide. This is a reasonable compromise that the Ehrlich administration should have embraced but instead blasted for "dramatically increasing" energy costs.

Much attention has been paid in recent days to Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.'s anticipated 72 percent rate increase. Consumers aren't willing to swallow it; they shouldn't have to breathe the utility's deadly fumes, either. Installing scrubbers and other pollution-control devices carries a cost, but it's not one that BGE's customers should have to pay. Coal-fired power is highly lucrative to BGE and the state's other electricity producers, but it's a profit center that no longer can be subsidized by the health of all Marylanders.

Mr. Ehrlich is correct to worry about rising energy costs, but he's got the wrong culprit. He ought to be giving pink slips to his own Public Service Commission, whose solution is to let BGE sock consumers twice - with higher rates and then by charging interest on deferred payments. Under these kinds of policies, people can look forward to choking on their utility bills and the air.

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